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Every person with autism has own story

Aiken Standard - 4/10/2017

April 09--Although they share a diagnosis, no two people with autism spectrum disorder are alike.

This month is National Autism Awareness Month.

A symbol of this month is the Autism Society's Autism Awareness Ribbon.

"The puzzle pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope -- hope that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and access to appropriate services/supports, people with autism will lead full lives (and be) able to interact with the world on (their) own terms," the Autism Society's website says.

The term "autism spectrum disorder" actually refers to various developmental disorders such as autistic disorder and Asperger Syndrome.

"People with ASD often have ... ongoing social problems that include difficulty communicating and interacting with others, repetitive behaviors as well as limited interests or activities, symptoms that typically are recognized in the first two (or three) years of life and symptoms that hurt the individual's ability to function socially, at school or work or other areas of life," the National Institute of Mental Health says.

Living on the spectrum

Michael Ruskin is 32 and has Asperger's Syndrome.

Typically when people are asked their age, they just give a number. Ruskin had to think about the question for a moment.

"32, I think, because my birthdate is 1984, and my birthday hasn't come this year yet," he said. "It's on Oct. 14, so that's about 32 years old."

For the last 10 years, he has received services through Tri-Development Center of Aiken County. Lynn Smits was his case manager when he first came to the nonprofit.

"For Michael, one of the characteristics of autism is the inability to deal with change," said Renee Staggs, director of training and support services with Tri-Development Center. "Michael is also very rule conscious, and that kind of goes along with it as well, that this is the rule and that nobody breaks the rule."

Tri-Development offers autistic individuals a full array of services, such as residential, day activity and community support services.

"There is no age limit to services, and no time limit to services through (here)," Staggs said.

An area where Ruskin has found his niche is the center's kitchen.

"I like cooking and baking, and I think it's an environment where everyone there is pretty compatible with me," he said.

Also, his need for precision and consistency comes well into play for his culinary role.

"When I do muffins, I have a near obsession with doing them in a specific pattern," he said.

Since he was so young at the time, Ruskin confesses that he can't recall when he received his diagnosis.

However, Tri-Development case manager Frances Brown-Taylor can tell you the exact age her 6-year-old son Steven Taylor was diagnosed with autism. He was 3.

"Getting diagnosed early is critical," Smits said.

Brown-Taylor said there were signs to her son's condition.

"We started noticing he wasn't communicating as he should for his age, more gestures and pointing, maybe one word, maybe, by the time he was 4," she said. "Toileting was an issue. He didn't get toilet trained until he was almost 5."

Taylor has attended speech and occupational therapy.

"He's had those services for the past three years, and you can see the improvement. It's amazing," Brown-Taylor said.

The Aiken County Public School District has also seen numerous students come and go that fall on the spectrum.

"Part of our role in the district is to assess children for autism," said Dr. Ashley Bouknight-Wingard, school psychologist. "We look at the different ways children communicate and use social interactions."

For example, younger children might not make great eye contact, might focus on objects more than interacting with others and might have an increase or decrease in sensitivity to sensory input, Bouknight-Wingard said.

"The range of children we currently have go from nonverbal with some very involved symptoms ... to a child whose extremely verbal who has, what we consider high functioning, some very developed skills but the way they use their language may be a little awkward or a little different from what you would typically expect. ... Then we have the kids that fall in the middle," said Ali Safa, autism and discrete trial program specialist for the school district.

Show raises awareness

Last year, "Sesame Street" introduced a 4-year-old girl with bright orange hair and bright, big green eyes named Julia. This shy girl has autism.

While Julia has lived through the show's books and digital presence since last year, today marks her TV debut in the episode "Meet Julia." The episode will air on HBO and PBS and will be posted on the HBO Kids YouTube channel for non-HBO subscribers to access.

"I think any opportunity that they take to introduce kindness and compassion towards people who may be different from us has got to be a great thing," Bouknight-Wingard said.

Julia and her friends have already been helping guardians with their autistic children through various tools on the "Sesame Street and Autism" website.

The website has helped Safa's niece, who has autism, through items like its daily routine cards.

Safa's niece refused to brush her teeth. That all changed when she was shown a picture-based story about Elmo, the lovable, red, furry monster, brushing his teeth.

"We put the video in the bathroom, and she went to town brushing her teeth," Safa said. "My sister tells me she still uses it to this day."

For more information on Julia or to access the children TV show's resources for autistic children, visit autism.sesamestreet.org.

Advice, more resources

"A word of advice for parents, if they notice their child may be autistic or they are diagnosed with autism, just reach out for all our resources and research things," said Jessica Grant, Tri-Development case manager.

Even though an autistic individual may need a bit more help than most of us, at the end of the day, he or she is still a person just like everybody else.

"Even though my son has autism, I still treat him ... as (if) nothing is even wrong with him," Brown-Taylor said. "You don't want them to feel any different. I make him feel like he's like any other child, and I deal with him like I would deal with a normal child."

If you believe you or a loved one who is 3 and older has autism spectrum disorder, call 1-800-289-7012 or visit www.ddsn.sc.gov to see if you qualify for services through the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

People seeking help with cases involving ages 3 and younger can refer to South Carolina First Steps' BabyNet program. For more information, call Aiken County First Step representatives Michelle Woodall at 803-533-5446 or Dorothy Hollis at 803-533-7390 or visit www.scfirststeps.com.

For more information on autism spectrum disorder, visit www.autism-society.org or www.nimh.nih.gov.

Stephanie Turner is the features reporter with the Aiken Standard, where she covers health topics, the arts, authors and restaurants. She graduated from Valdosta State University in 2012.

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(c)2017 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.)

Visit the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.) at www.aikenstandard.com

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