|By Starrla Cray, Staff Writer
Stacey Kahlert’s life hasn’t been the same since her son, Lucas, was diagnosed with autism 17 years ago, but she “wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“Lucas is a joy,” Stacey said. “It’s been a really long road, but I’ve learned things about life I never thought I needed to know. It’s made me a better person.”
According to the Autism Science Foundation, approximately one in 88 children in the US are affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and it is almost five times more common in boys than girls.
Autism was first introduced as a separate diagnostic category in 1980. Back then, the rate of autism was often reported as four in 10,000, an article in Parents magazine stated. More awareness, expansion of the symptoms, and possibly environmental and/or genetic factors has made autism a much more common diagnosis in recent years.
When Stacey first heard about autism, an image of the 1988 movie, “Rain Man” came to mind.
“I thought, ‘that’s not my son,’” she recalled.
ASD symptoms vary widely, and each case is a little different. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, early indicators might include no social responsiveness, no babbling or pointing by age 1, and excessive lining up of toys or objects.
Avoidance of eye contact was one symptom Stacey noticed early on with Lucas.
“He had certain peculiarities, quite different from his sister,” Stacey said, explaining that Alexandria (born 14 months earlier) was speaking in full sentences at 18 months old.
At age 2, Lucas was tested for autism, and results showed that he was functioning at the level of a 10-month-old.
“It was almost a sense of relief,” Stacey said of the diagnosis. “At least I knew which direction to start looking to get help.”
Autistic children have a short window of time to maximize their abilities, Stacey said.
“As a mother, that was a terrifying fact,” she said.
Lucas participated in occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy, and later got involved in applied behavior analysis (ABA), which was known as behavior modification at the time.
“Now, he knows how to read, and he can do math,” Stacey said. “He still struggles with telling time, and money, but he’s made tremendous gains.”
In March, Lucas graduated from a transition program at Bloomington High School, where students learn basic job skills. For Lucas, one of the hardest parts of school was the breaks, such as teacher workshop days or snow days.
“Autistic people very much need a routine and predictability in their lives,” Stacey said. “If they can’t have it, it causes a great deal of anxiety.”
Recently, Lucas has been attending a day program in Chaska called Mankato Rehabilitation Center Incorporated (MRCI). The program began in Mankato in 1953, and focuses on creating work and community involvement opportunities for people with disabilities.
He also attends music therapy a few times a month, and plays several instruments.
“I’m still searching for additional opportunities for him, something in McLeod County,” Stacey said. “He loves animals, and it would be great if he could volunteer on a farm.”
After MRCI, Lucas swims at Safari Island Community Center in Waconia, and soon, he’ll be starting an exercise program.
“He gained 40 pounds in the past year and a half, because the medications he’s taking increase his appetite,” Stacey said.
Lucas currently takes about 25 pills per day, including several narcotics and anti-psychotics. Some are designed to counteract the aggressive tendencies he began exhibiting about four years ago. Stacey describes Lucas as an “extremely loving and gentle young man” in general, but he sometimes tries to injure himself or others.
“He requires constant supervision,” Stacey said.
According to Autismspeaks.org, many people with autism have difficulty regulating their emotions, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
Stacey is hoping to find out if there is a medical reason behind her son’s aggression (such as if he is in pain), in hopes of reducing the amount of medication he is taking.
“Right now, he’s being chemically restrained, and I worry about his health,” she said.
For Stacey, having an autistic child has inspired her to become an advocate for parents in similar situations.
She encourages parents to get connected to their county social worker, and to utilize the resources that are out there.
“Never give up,” she said. “Keep fighting, keep searching. Follow your gut, and if something doesn’t seem right, ask questions.”
When to see a doctor
Children with autism usually show some symptoms by the time they are 1 year old. The Mayo Clinic states that a doctor may recommend more developmental tests if a child doesn’t make the following milestones:
• 6 months responding with a smile or happy expression
• 9 months mimicing sounds or facial expressions
• 12 months babbling or cooing; gesturing by pointing or waving
•16 months saying single words
• 24 months saying two-word phrases