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Communicating a need; Experts say early detection is key to successful treatment of condition

Florence Vecchione's 7-year-old son is a typical boy for the most part -- except that he has autism.

Still, he's a well-adjusted second-grader in a typical classroom setting in a public school. He has developed good social skills, and chances are he will keep reaching regular milestones just like his peers.

But sometimes the Town of Tonawanda mother of two wonders what she would have done differently had she known of her son's condition earlier in his young life.

"We would have changed routines to reduce stress on him. I would have prepared different meals for him" because many autistic children are particular about what they will eat, she said.

"Would I have been more hands-on? Would I have treated him differently? Would I have spoken to him differently?"

Vecchione was among a group of parents, elected officials, businesspeople and staffers of Summit Educational Resources who gathered Monday at the agency to mark World Autism Awareness Day. They stressed early detection as the key to successful treatment.

"We want to make a difference in the lives of families dealing with autism and to give them access to effective treatment," said Stephen R. Anderson, chief executive officer at Summit, in Getzville.

According to a national report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is nearly twice as common as officials said it was five years ago. It is now becoming an epidemic in the United States, with one out of 88 children believed to have autism or a related disorder, officials said. The rate is up from previous estimates one in 110, and was attributed largely to wider screening.

Monday, Anderson talked about the local impact of autism.

"We don't have great numbers, but almost 1,000 kids in Erie and Niagara counties have been classified with autism, and that number does not include children under 4, adults over 21 and kids who are highly functioning," he said.

The key to successfully treating the disorder is early detection and hours of one-on-one therapy. "Kids need 30 to 40 hours a week of full-time therapy," Anderson said.

Autism is a complex neurological disorder characterized by significant difficulties with repetitive and restrictive behavior, communication and socialization, according to research information provided by Summit.

It is considered a spectrum disorder, which means it affects each individual differently and to varying degrees, said Ellen Spangenthal, director of communications at Summit.

"One extreme may include an individual with normal intelligence who is very verbal and may be very smart in one particular area of interest but might have limited social skills. The other end of the spectrum might be an individual who is nonverbal with a relatively low IQ and is very withdrawn from the world and self-directed," Spangenthal said.

There is no known single cause of autism, but it is generally accepted that it is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Brain scans show differences in the shape and structure of the brain in children with autism versus neuro-typical children.

It appears that some children are born with a susceptibility to autism, but researchers have not identified a single trigger that causes the disorder to develop.

As a developmental disorder, autism occurs very early in life -- often prior to age 3 -- and may be apparent from early infancy. Doctors look at the child's behavior and development to make a diagnosis.

Vecchione's son, who was born prematurely, was diagnosed with autism at 2 1/2 . When she and her husband found out, they didn't waste any time. She quit her job, and the couple immediately linked with autism therapy services at home, including a team of specialists.

"He had an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, a special-education therapist," Vecchione said.

At 4, the little boy was enrolled in an early autism program at Summit and then went into a "contained" classroom for special-education students in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District, Vecchione said.

The special attention and treatments paid off. "He did so well, they said for first grade he could go into a typical classroom," Vecchione said.

The boy now is in the second grade, in a typical classroom, and "he does not stand out. You can't even tell he's a kid with autism," she added.

In many families there appears to be a pattern of autism or related disabilities, according to Summit's data.

That was the case with the Vecchiones, whose 4-year-old daughter also was diagnosed with autism. But she did not exhibit stereotypical symptoms, which made her mother initially question the diagnosis, she said.

"My son had stereotypical signs of autism -- screeching, flapping hands, compulsive behavior, but she had none of those behaviors," said Vecchione.

Not convinced her daughter was autistic, Vecchione had her tested twice. But the results were the same.

Her daughter attends preschool at Summit. The agency offers broad services for children and young adults with autism and other related developmental disabilities, including diagnostic evaluations, early intervention, and therapeutic and support services.

Plans were announced Monday for the 13th annual Summit Walk for Autism Awareness, starting with registration at 9 a.m. April 28 at Summit's offices, 150 Stahl Road, Getzville. The goal is to raise $250,000 to support agency programs. Walk participants can register online at www.summitwalk.org or make a donation.

email: dswilliams@buffnews.com