Autism increase stirs awareness, detection efforts

This article was originally published in Towson Times.

The lanky youth sauntered by our booth, his pristine New York Yankee uniform gleaming in the afternoon sun.

He paused to read our banner, “Pathfinders for Autism,” then kept walking. After all, we were in the Orioles Community Relations booth and judging from the detail of his outfit, he was a very loyal Yankee fan.

The second time he passed, he must have seen the free baseball cards sign. He moseyed up to the counter and asked about them. We gave him the card featuring Oriole B.J. Surhoff with information about autism and Pathfinders replacing the usual player statistics. B.J. has a child with autism. So do I.

Then the young fellow noticed our bright blue “Pathfinders for Autism” wristbands. A few minutes later, he came back with his mom, dad and sister. They all bought wristbands.

I learned that we shared a mutual foe: autism.

In the last three months, autism issues have permeated the press. Newsweek’s Feb. 28 cover displayed a smiling baby with the feature story, “When Does Autism Start?” NBC launched a weeklong, round-the-clock series to examine the issue. The Sun reported on the early detection of autism and featured an op-ed piece about current early detection legislation.

Why all the focus? The statistics are startling.

Twenty years ago, one in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today it affects as many as one in 166 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many ask if autism cases are increasing or if doctors have better means of diagnostics. While the researchers sort that out, parents with autistic children continue their daily struggle.

“There is no one protocol for treating our kids,” Brian Mund, president of the Pathfinders Board, says. “Autism is a spectrum disorder ranging from high functioning individuals to lower functioning, nonverbal children.”

Autism typically appears during the first three years of life and is usually a lifelong developmental disability. There is no known cause or cure.

Autism changes your life forever.

At another Yankee game, Mike Ford, vice president of Pathfinders worked the booth with his daughter, Allie.

“For the first hour, the only buyers were Yankee fans,” he says. “Many said they had a child with autism, knew a child with autism or taught autistic kids. It was amazing.”

Mund’s son, Mickey, is nonverbal. My daughter, Madison, speaks with scripted phrases taught in a specialized therapy. Surhoff’s son, Mason, is proficiently verbal (after years of intensive therapy) and gifted with total recall for dates, times and historical events. And Ford’s son, John, is now fully included in the classroom without assistance.

Yet, all display behaviors that indicate their intense difficulty to communicate.

The good news is that early intervention helps and that educators, physicians and legislators are beginning to respond.

“Intervention before three years of age yields better outcomes than after 4 years of age,” Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said at an Annapolis legislative hearing in support of a pilot early-detection program. Her before- and after-therapy tapes clearly demonstrated improved communication.

And the “what if” question haunts us: “What if our children had been given this type of therapy at a younger age?”

But we move on, grateful for the progress we have made and hopeful for the possibilities the future can bring.

And perhaps discovering some unusual allies, even Yankee fans, along the way.