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Autism cases on the rise, providers say more awareness is needed


More children are being diagnosed with autism, and local treatment providers are trying to figure out why.

As many as one in every 88 children fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, according to a recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Ten years ago, that estimate was about one in every 150 children.

According to the CDC, diagnoses on the spectrum are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. The spectrum includes a variety of diagnoses, including autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

“Autism is a neurobiophysical disorder, and I think genetics plays a role in this,” said Marguerite “Peg” K. Feistel, owner of Benchmark Family Services. “I think doctors are better with diagnosing autism, too. Education needs to catch up with this. I think people need to understand that it can happen to any families. It knows no boundaries and knows no ethnicity.”

Ms. Feistel was one of more than 100 people who participated Sunday in Benchmark’s fifth annual autism awareness walk, which began at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds exhibition hall, off of Coffeen Street.

Meanwhile, Northern New York Autism Center Director Katherine E. Robertson said that while better diagnoses may be one reason for the increased number of cases, complications with someone’s immune, endocrine and central nervous systems may also play into the diagnosis.

The trouble, she said, is that scientists won’t come out and say what causes autism. There is, however, much speculation.

According to the CDC report, autism spectrum disorders “tend to occur more often in people who have certain genetic or chromosomal conditions.”

“About 10 percent of children with autism are also identified as having Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, and other genetic and chromosomal disorders,” the report states.

The report also stated that most children on the spectrum don’t have an intellectual disability. Ms. Feistel said many autistic children are brilliant, yet lack social and communication skills to express their intelligence.

“Programs like Benchmark help their kids be like everyone else’s,” she said. “We have a specialized classroom that we are fortunate enough to have to teachers who work with autism. We also contract with a behavior specialist, and they train the tutors to provide services to the children in their home.”

Leigh A. Ball, Watertown, participated in Sunday’s walk with her 9-year-old son, Jay J. Badalato, who was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at 2 years old. She said parents shouldn’t be afraid if they notice a disconnect from their child at an early age; rather, they should inquire with their child’s primary care physician.

“I think the key thing is to get help,” she said. “If you see signs, get early intervention. A support system is key.”

After speech and occupational therapy and special education classes, she said, Jay is now in a typical third-grade classroom. He receives speech therapy and has to work harder than the average student, Ms. Ball said, but his autism has become more manageable.

“It’s treatable,” Mrs. Robertson said. “All of the different therapies that are available are wonderful, but I think if you want to see the best outcome for a child then you need to combine the medical with rehabilitation. Years ago, autism was thought of as something that just happened to kids. We have to get the message across that it’s a disease.”

Autism awareness has been widespread throughout the north country this month, as April is National Autism Awareness Month. The Disabled Persons Action Organization, the Cerebral Palsy Association of the North Country and Northern Regional Center for Independent Living co-hosted the inaugural Autism Awareness Celebration Saturday in Thompson park. The NNY Autism Center will hold its own autism awareness celebration April 21 at the Salmon Run Mall.

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