Autism awareness a local priority

Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT
Caption
(Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com)
Christy Niemeyer (left), a direct support person, and Danny Hedberg, who is autistic, react after Hedberg successfully finishes a learning program while using a computer tablet Friday at Opportunity House in Sycamore. The Opportunity House day program in Sycamore helps prepare individuals with disabilities to live more independent by teaching life skills.

DeKALB – Lauren Kruse has been working on the same puzzle for 7 years.

Every time the 30-year-old Sycamore native thinks the pieces are about to fit together, they change. For Kruse, the variety makes the puzzle known as autism a challenge worth solving and a lifelong passion.

“When you meet one child with autism, you meet one child with autism,” Kruse said. “Everyone is unique in their own way.”

Kruse, who works for Camelot School in DeKalb, is one of the thousands of teachers, therapists and counselors working to change misconceptions during Autism Awareness Month. According to The Autism Program of Illinois, autism spectrum disorders affect one out of every 88 children, including more than 30,000 statewide.

Aside from her daily work with students with developmental delays at Camelot, Kruse is raising autism awareness through homemade scarves. The scarves’ colorful, puzzle-piece theme reflects her philosophy that each child on the autism spectrum is different, she said.

The clothing creations have been a hit. Kruse has sold more than 300 scarves in a month, which has raised about $1,000 for the Autism Society.

“It’s been unbelievable and a really neat experience,” she said. “I definitely see the awareness growing just from when I take [students] out in the community. There are less stares, and it’s more welcoming.”

One organization helping in the awareness and treatment of autism is Opportunity House in Sycamore. The nonprofit agency helps people with disabilities expand their life experiences through residential, vocational, social and recreational opportunities.

Robert Shipman, executive director of Opportunity House, said roughly 8 percent of the 250 people the organization serves have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Shipman believes the number of people with autism has grown because the diagnosis process is more sophisticated.

“Autism is such a unique thing,” he said. “I think people used to be diagnosed with a behavior disorder or some other disorder and are now being diagnosed with autism. It’s a refinement, so I’m not sure it’s growing as much as it appears.”

As health experts learn more about autism, treatment options begin to expand, said counselor Nathan Perron. Perron, owner of Samaritan Heritage Counseling in DeKalb, said improvements in addressing symptoms of autism happen every year. It has become easier to diagnose.

But because disorders range from Asperger’s syndrome to pervasive developmental disorder and autistic disorder, Perron said there is no blanket treatment.

“One person might have compulsive traits; the next person might have social inhibitions,” Perron said. “Parents have to have a desire for their child to be aware of what is going on. Creating that awareness is part of the treatment process.”

Technology has been one of the biggest breakthroughs in helping people with autism integrate more fully into their communities, said Diana Hulst, program director at Opportunity House.

There has been a major shift to using iPads and laptops in school curricula and it has helped those with autism control the speed of communication within their environment, Hulst said. The fast pace of society and the speed with which information is delivered often can overwhelm those with autism, but people are beginning to understand how capable and sharp those with autism can be when in control of their environment.

The next step in autism awareness is providing some of the same opportunities every one should enjoy, Hulst said.

“They can lead productive lives and work at good jobs,” Hulst said. “We take cigarette and coffee breaks at work. We have to understand they may need to reset and take a break in different ways. They might need to watch a video clip or do a math problem, but it’s a break just like we need.”

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