It's sometimes referred to as the "hidden disorder." We're referring to the autism spectrum. Often times there are no obvious signs of the condition to the outside world, yet the disorder can completely inhibit a person from communicating with others.
In the last decade, a growing number of children have been diagnosed with autism. NewsCenter16's Sarah Platt takes a look at some of the ways families are dealing with an autism diagnosis.
Autism is a neurological condition that is almost as puzzling today as it was when it was first pointed out in the 1940's. Over the years, there have been many advancements in therapy and medicine to treat symptoms, but a cure for autism still seems to be years away.
Twice a week, Patrick Cichoracki attends speech therapy with a speech pathologist. First Steps diagnosed him with autism shortly before he turned three.
“He's actually a very intelligent little guy who notices things that you wouldn't expect him too,” says Patrick’s speech pathologist Susanna McKinley.
Autistic children like Patrick don't see, hear, and feel the same way the average person does. It’s like their senses are on overload. They also tend to be non-verbal. Patrick uses a special speech device or "talker" to communicate his sentences.
McKinley says he's made some amazing strides. “He's beginning to initiate his own sentences without any prompting now. When he needs something from his mother now, he'll go up and produce a full sentence like a child age two would do,” adds McKinley.
“It was only two years ago they said he'd probably never be able to speak, that he would rely on that device his entire life. Now he's trying, he can say momma, so that's good for me,” says Cichoracki.
Besides speech, the Cichoracki's have also tried behavioral, occupational, even physical therapy. “We tried everything that didn't physically hurt him or bankrupt us, we tried it, tried gluten-casein free diet, tried music therapy, softball lessons, pursuing swimming lessons,” adds Cichoracki.
Experts at the Logan Center tell NewsCenter16 that an early diagnosis and treatment can greatly improve a child's prognosis. “You have a much better chance of helping develop those neurological connections, that will help them benefit from social interactions, language development, academic behaviors,” says Dan Ryan, Director of the Regional Autism Center at Logan.
“The younger you start the better,” adds mom Angie Smous, “The most improvement we've seen is with our younger one. He had some early signs, where our other two didn't as much,” says Smous.
With three kids on the autism spectrum, the Smous family has tried many therapies and is now starting the gluten and casein free diet. The diet restricts certain grains, starches, and dairy products. Some parents have seen dramatic improvements in their children after placing them on this diet.
Meantime, sensory activities like the trampoline and swing have been helpful to the Smous' youngest, Pete.
“The first time we put him in a swing, he said his first five word sentence as soon as he got out,” says Smous.
“Our daughter is really sensitive to noise. In preschool, if somebody was whispering, she'd say 'no whispering too loud!!'”
The stress of autism can take its toll on everyone in the family. “Very stressful, very stressful, but that comes and goes, it's getting better all the time,” reflects Smous.
“Some kids with autism don't like to be touched or hugged because they have increased sensory overload,” adds Ryan.
Reports show divorce rates are sometimes as high as 80% for couple's with autistic children. “One of the most effective ways to help a parent is to connect them to another parent who is walking in the same shoes that they are,” says Ryan.
“Nobody signs on to work this hard, but you have to. It's what you've been given and when you get these successes, it's completely a miracle,” contemplates Cichoracki.
Like other parents of autistic children, Cichoracki's ultimate goal is to get her child as high functioning as possible. And as these autistic children become adults, they're faced with the challenge of finding a job or even living on their own.
38-year-old Paul Warren of South Bend has autism. Paul is unable to live on his own and is still under the care of his parents who are in their 70's. Despite his challenges, Paul has been able to hold down a job with the same company for ten years.
While autistic children today have many therapy opportunities, many of those weren't around when people like Paul warren were young. Because of an insurance mandate, insured Indiana residents are covered for many autism treatments. A similar mandate is being proposed in the state of Michigan, as residents are not typically covered for autism therapies.
With or without insurance, though, many families struggle to pay for therapies that their autistic children need.
Coming up Thursday night on NewsCenter16 at 11, Sarah will have the third and final part of her series, “Autism: Understanding the Puzzle.” She'll have more on Paul Warren, an adult living with autism.