"My hope is that the awareness would [help people] realize autism is not Dustin Hoffman in 'Rain Man' and that autism is becoming a crisis in the United States," said Autism in Bartow Treasurer Jamie West, whose 11-year-old son, Jared, was diagnosed at age 5. "We are down to where some are saying one in 100 to one in 91 children will be diagnosed with autism. More families this year will be touched by autism than they will be touched by cancer, diabetes [or] anything [else].
"So I just want people to become aware that this is a part of our society now. There is going to be children with autism, and we need to try to learn to help them [and] help their families."
Autism -- a complex developmental disability -- generally materializes by a child's third birthday and affects their ability to communicate.
According to Autism Society's website, www.autism-society.org, "Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a 'spectrum disorder' that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known single cause for autism, but increased awareness and funding can help families today. In December 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued their ADDM autism prevalence report. The report concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to 1 in every 110 births in the United States and almost 1 in 70 boys. The issuance of this report caused a media uproar, but the news was not a surprise to the Autism Society or to the 1.5 million Americans living with the effects of autism spectrum disorder.
"Nonetheless, the spotlight shown on autism as a result of the prevalence increase opens opportunities for the nation to consider how to serve these families facing a lifetime of supports for their children. Currently, the Autism Society estimates that the lifetime cost of caring for a child with autism ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million, and that the United States is facing almost $90 billion annually in costs for autism (this figure includes research, insurance costs and non-covered expenses, Medicaid waivers for autism, educational spending, housing, transportation, employment, in addition to related therapeutic services and caregiver costs)."
In the past 13 years, Autism in Bartow has grown from a handful of individuals to providing assistance to more than 100 families in Bartow County. Formed by Lyn Herring, the volunteer-based nonprofit provides resources and encouragement through its website, www.autisminbartow.com, and monthly meetings at Cartersville Medical Center. Through private donations and proceeds from the annual Fashion for a Cause benefit, Autism in Bartow also supplies funding for parents and teachers to enhance their knowledge at autism conferences.
"When we got the group together, my daughter was 4 and had just been diagnosed," Herring said. "There were a couple other parents from my daughter's classroom that also had children diagnosed with autism. So it started out very basic.
"The other two parents and I got together at my house and just kind of talked about what we were dealing with, and the similarities that our kids had, and the differences, and how we were coping, and how our family was coping. ... [It is important] that nobody feels alone. I think in the beginning, so many of us got a diagnosis and we were shoved out into the world. And we thought, 'What do I do now?' and 'I don't know anybody else in this position. But as the diagnosis becomes more frequent, I think people already know somebody. But to have somebody right in your community and be able to direct you, I think is very helpful."
While Herring said her daughter, Siarra -- an 11th-grader at Woodland High School -- still is struggling with social situations, she is excelling academically. As a member of her school's National Honor Society, Siarra helped organize Woodland High's Wear Blue for Autism Day on April 15. Along with encouraging the student body to wear blue, the NHS members created an autism-related billboard and shared information with their classmates in a video presentation.
"[I hope] the students gained just more awareness and more understanding of the exceptionalities of others. Children who are on the spectrum have a set way of doing things, for instance my son will line his toys up in a row," said Cathy Lorenz, a mother of a son with Asperger's syndrome and a co-sponsor of Woodland High's NHS along with Jodi Bell. "They have to be lined up in a row and it's like students here -- they have a system. [It is] like a geometry problem. They'll have to draw the problem and then solve it and go through each step sequentially.
"These kids, they are highly intelligent -- some of them are -- but others have no clue as to how to accept them. ... A lot of people don't really know what autism is. [So for the bulletin board] we boiled the message down, simplified it, as much as we could. People with autism, they sense their environment differently than others and it's on sensory-type issues. So [on the bulletin board] there's an ear on a puzzle piece and I think there's a nose on a puzzle piece [and also] a mouth, just different things. It's ... [to illustrate] how these children -- they have to get through the distortion in order to sense their world, and they're never really going to sense it the way that the typical person senses the world."
While Woodland High has wrapped up its autism awareness offerings, White Elementary School will conduct activities related to the spectrum disorder next month. Spearheaded by WES Speech Therapist Joy Brown, the school's Celebrate Autism week will be May 2 to 6. Along with watching a five-minute movie, the elementary students also will be participating in an educational coloring contest and listening to their autistic classmates share information during the announcements. In addition, proceeds from a bracelet sale and a teachers' "dress down" day will benefit Autism in Bartow.
With West serving as a media clerk at WES, she is excited that the school is embracing her son and other autistic students. She said Jared, a fourth-grader at White Elementary, will be the first child to share an autism fact during the morning announcements.
"What I hope is that children come away and understand that even though Jared does things that are very different from the way they do it -- the way he may hum and rock; the way he takes everything very literal; the way he plays or reacts to sunshine, reacts to sound -- that doesn't make him weird," West said. "It's just like if someone who is a diabetic can't eat a cupcake when you bring it to a birthday party at school or somebody with a peanut allergy can't have peanut butter. They're different because of autism."
For more information about Autism in Bartow, visit www.autisminbartow.com. The group meets on the first Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m. at Cartersville Medical Center's Classroom No. 1.