April is a month of awareness. In addition to Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Child Abuse Awareness Month, April is Autism Awareness Month.
And as the month nears its end, Lori King, family preservation specialist for Catholic Community Services Family Resource Center, reports on several functions that have already taken place.
King has attended a rally on the Capitol steps; a showing of "Autism is a World," a short documentary by Sue Rubin; and a presentation by autism specialist Dr. Chuck Lester; as well as a recent presentation by Dr. Charles Cowan, a neuro-developmental and behavioral pediatrician and medical director of the Autism Clinic at Seattle Children's Hospital, on what is new in the world of autism.
"Functions such as these in Juneau are an important part of supporting families as well as bringing awareness to our community," King said.
As mother to an 18-year-old woman who experiences autism, King well understands the importance of gathering with other parents and professionals.
"I have found that attending as many autism-related functions as possible and meeting other parents who have similar experiences to be my best resources," King said. "So far this has been the most effective way for me to cope with the stress as well as to share the joys of parenting this amazing individual."
Actually, King said the main reason she chose to work for Catholic Community Services is because of its parent support groups, called "Our Time."
"This group is designed to provide support through sharing challenges, successes, strategies and resources," King said. "At this point, most of the parents who attend have children on the autism spectrum, though the only criteria to attend the group is that you have a child with special needs."
This weekly group has been an integral part of King's family support system for more than 12 years, she said. And since finding the group, King said she has made it her goal to improve and expand the resources in Juneau.
"I advocate as much as I can in our community to create services focused on early recognition, early intervention, research based programs and legislation that will increase opportunities for individuals on the spectrum as well as support for their families," she said. "Unfortunately, there are not many resources of this kind in Alaska let alone Juneau."
According to King, the few resources that do exist can often be difficult to access for a number of reasons, some of which are insurance plans that will not cover the cost of services, a lack of specialists in the field who regularly visit or live in Juneau, or wait lists for the few services that do exist.
"We know that early intervention is the key which is why autism awareness is so important," King said. "If everyone is aware of how common autism spectrum disorders are (one in 150 kids are diagnosed with autism) and how important it is to start providing interventions as early as possible then we can help these individuals live fuller lives."
Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q&A with a parent of an autistic child
Michael Wittig, a Juneau stay-at-home father of two:
Q: How many children do you have, and what are their ages and names? Who has autism? When was he/she diagnosed?
A: "Becky, 5 (6 in June). Michael, 4. Becky was diagnosed shortly after her third birthday."
Q: What was it like to find out your child was autistic? How have you dealt with it since?
A: "The diagnosis was expected. There were speech delays and other developmental traits that fell within the spectrum for autism, and we knew something was going on.
"Dealing with autism after an official diagnosis is much easier than dealing with an undiagnosed autistic child. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to child development. When a parent knows their child is developmentally delayed but doesn't know why they start to look for something or someone to blame. An official diagnosis erases much of the uncertainty."
Q: What, if any, are the difficulties you encounter daily regarding your autistic child?
A: "Because my daughter is only mildly autistic, most people are unaware of her autism. The people most likely to notice are her peers in school, and this is probably going to be her greatest challenge in the years to come. Kids can't be expected to understand autism and how it affects behavior, so friendships will be much harder to forge."
Q: What advice would you give to other parents with autistic children?
A: "If a parent has concerns about their child's development, get them evaluated. Autism will not go away, but it can be treated."
Q: Why do you think Autism Awareness Month is important?
A: "Is it? I don't need a month or a day to remind me of autism and its implications, but most people tend not place too much importance on things that don't concern them directly. April is also national irritated bowel syndrome awareness month, for instance (really, I looked it up), but most folks are (blissfully) unaware of this."
Q: Anything you'd like to add?
A: "Autism isn't a 'yes' or 'no' diagnosis; it falls on a spectrum. My daughter places within that spectrum. She can still talk and laugh and sing just like other kids, and she has feelings too. The best way to treat any person, autistic or not, is with dignity and respect."
Q: Tell me about your autistic child. What do you anticipate for her future?
A: "I think she can do anything she wants to do. She just has to have a desire. For instance, we have a Wii at home, and right now she's using Wii Fit and is becoming rather well coordinated at it. She can tightrope on it and things of that nature - as well as I can, although her technique is interesting. She can also beat me at Mario Kart, which is within her age range more or less to be able to drive a vehicle. But for her to be able to do it better than I can is unusual I think.
"Academically, she's with her class. She can sort of read, just like any kindergartner and better than a lot of first graders. She's not there yet, but she is in kindergarten.
"Socially, that's going to be her biggest challenge."
Q: Is that typical in autistic children?
A: "There may or may not be things that they would excel at. And there may be many things or just a few that they excel at, and it's identifying those (that matters).
"Like CNN did a story about an Mongolian horse boy, the boy who lived in the Lower 48. He was an autistic kid who just started to respond when he was riding a horse and so has now gone off to Mongolia where he's staying with a shaman, and it's been great for him.
"Everybody finds something they excel at."
Q: What have you learned/gained from parenting an autistic child?
"It has certainly taught patience. I guess that would be the big thing. I've learned some things. I've learned a lot about Becky obviously, but each child is unique. I learn quite a bit about every child that I get to know."