April 14, 2000|By KATE COLEMAN

See also: Austism traits & resources

Autism is a puzzle. "Everything's like a piece," said Tammie Bannon, whose 8-year-old son Mark has autism.

The pieces are different for every person with autism, and the pieces are hard to find.

cont. from lifestyle

Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life, according to the Autism Society of America.

A brain disorder, it affects a child's ability to communicate, form relationships and respond appropriately to the environment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.


It is estimated to occur in about one in 500 individuals and is seen in four times as many boys as girls.

Seventy-five to 80 percent of people with autism have mental retardation, but a few show exceptional intelligence, according to NIMH.

What causes autism?

It is generally accepted that autism is caused by abnormalities in the structures or functions of the brain, according to NIMH.

Researchers are looking at many possibilities, including cells migrating to the wrong part of the brain and problems with the brain's communication network that may interfere with coordinating sensory information, thoughts, feelings and actions.

Research also has found that there appears to be a genetic predisposition toward autism, said Larry Lipsitz, a Hagerstown behavior specialist whose work includes developing comprehensive programs for people with autism.

Programs must be different for each individual because people with autism exhibit very different behaviors.

Genevieve Ford, a behavior specialist in Hagerstown, said she's never met two kids who are the same.

Bannon, who lives in Hagerstown, said her son spoke some words until he was about 3 years old. Then he regressed, losing language.

The hardest thing was his frustration at not being able to speak. "He did a lot of pointing," Bannon said.

His pediatrician suspected autism, but it took Bannon a year to get a referral approved by her insurance company so that Mark could have a comprehensive evaluation at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.

Lois Noland said she was an emotional mess when her 3-year-old son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS - Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified.

Jacob "J.J." Noland was described as autistic-like, and although his mother said she had heard of autism, she really didn't know what it was.

She has since learned a lot. She is an advocate for J.J., making sure that he gets all the help he's entitled to by law. "If I don't do it, who's going to? He's my son," she said. President of the Washington County Autism Society, Noland shares her information with other parents.


Although the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved them for autism, medications used to treat anxiety and depression have been used and sometimes are effective, according to NIMH.

There is a lot of controversy about alternative approaches, which include vitamin and mineral supplements, restricting milk and wheat in the diet and using the intestinal hormone secretin.

Dana Laake, a licensed nutritionist in Rockville, Md., said children usually are diagnosed with autism on the basis of their behavior, not by biochemical evaluation, which she believes is essential.

Dr. Arnold Brenner, a pediatrician in Randallstown, Md., said he has patients who have improved dramatically by restricting their diet.

There also is debate about a possible connection between vaccines, such as the MMR - measles, mumps and rubella immunization - and autism. The medical establishment generally does not believe there is a connection.

It would be very upsetting if turned out to be true, Brenner said, choosing his words "delicately."


Danielle "Danny" Schultz's autism was diagnosed when she was about 3 years old, said her mom, Alexandra Ward.

Danny walked on her toes and had head-banging and kicking tantrums that left holes in drywall.

Ward said she told herself that Danny was just "a little odd" and thought she'd outgrow it.

She blamed herself, thinking that her daughter was mad at her because she commutes to work in Washington, D.C. It has taken her a long time to come to terms with Danny's autism, she said.

But Ward said she is happy with the help that's available for her daughter.

Danny is a student at Boonsboro Middle School where instructional assistant Denise Michael provides one-on-one assistance in Danny's classes through the day.

Danny's program is custom-made for her - a key in helping children with autism, Lipsitz said.

All factors - psychological, medical, speech, hearing and sensory - must be considered. If a child is sensitive to touch, an occupational therapist can help to figure out what will work.

Rubbing the child's back every 10 minutes may help, so it's included in the plan.

If a child doesn't use language, pictures help him connect with the world. "It's a process," Lipsitz said.

Mark spent three years in Head Start at Robinwood and went to kindergarten at Potomac Heights Elementary School when he was 6. He has a full-time aide in school and gets help from a speech therapist.

Despite his difficulties with language, Bannon and her son always "talk" about his feelings. They use pictures - a happy face if he's happy, for example.

Although his language is not typical for his age, Mark now is using sentences - "Come over to my house, Grandma," as well as asking "Why?"

Bannon said dealing with a child who has autism is an ongoing process for her, and it's not easy.

But Mark can learn, she said, and she wants to get the word out to parents who receive what she knows can be an overwhelming diagnosis.

"These children can learn," said Bannon.

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