(Photo by Tim Jaynes, Staff)
SIKESTON -- When Patty Noe first heard from the doctor that her then 2-
year-old daughter was showing autistic-like characteristics, she said the only source she had to compare it to was the movie "Rain Man."
It was four years ago when Noe and her husband, Tim, found out their daughter, Hannah, had mild to moderate autism, with their daughter being on the high-functioning side.
"When she wasn't talking as I thought she should was when I brought it up to her pediatrician. He said, 'Let's check her hearing,' and we started with a speech therapist," Noe said.
In hindsight, Noe said other signs were there. Instead of playing with a toy, Hannah would line her toys up and she did a lot of spinning.
"She would also do a lot of sitting in a chair and rocking back and forth. A lot of autistic children don't know how to play with toys. They often stack or sort things," Noe said.
Now Noe said she's pleased about the recent surge in education, awareness and resources about the developmental disorder.
"I think it's wonderful. The more educated the public and parents can be and the earlier we intervene, the better," said Noe of Lilbourn.
Experts say one in 150 U.S. children have the troubling developmental disorder.
"This is an epidemic. It's there. We don't know what causes it so the sooner we can pull them out of that window, the better off they'll be," Noe said.
This also means more people are diagnosed with autism than cancer, AIDS and diabetes combined, Noe said. She noted when polio was considered an epidemic, experts said 1 in 5,000 had the disease.
Dr. David Boldrey, a pediatrician at Ferguson Medical Group in Sikeston, said the topic of autism brought up by parents comes in spurts.
"I have noticed more parents asking about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine," Boldrey said.
Boldrey said there's no evidence to show autism is caused by MMR vaccine despite what has been in news.
Also thimerosal -- a mercury-containing preservative thought to cause autism -- is not used in infant vaccines, he said.
But Noe isn't so convinced vaccines don't play a role in causing autism.
"I don't believe in not vaccinating your children. I believe the scheduling should change on the vaccinating of your children," Noe said.
Most recently Jenny McCarthy's new book, "Louder than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism," has sparked dialogue about the disorder, Boldrey said.
"I don't think we're seeing an increase in the number of kids with autism. I think there's an increase in diagnoses," Boldrey said.
Also doctors today are more aware of the subtle or mild forms of autism, Boldrey said.
"Children who were once thought of as eccentric or odd are now being labeled as autistic," Boldrey said.
Boldrey said he sees patients who have autistic tendencies. "At that age, it's hard to make the diagnosis of autism. You clearly see a developmental delay or autistic tendency, but you can't rule out any medical causes and as they get older, sometimes autistic symptoms become clearer," Boldrey said.
Boldrey said doctors are constantly getting the opportunity to review information when it comes to diagnosing autism. Also pediatricians screen infants and toddlers for developmental delays at every well child visit, he said.
"If parents think there's something wrong, most of the time, they're probably right so they should come and get their child screened," Boldrey said.
Since March 2004, Hannah has received speech therapy and occupational therapy twice a week at the Kenny Rogers Children's Center. She also receives therapy at her school.
Noe said she's seen a remarkable difference in her daughter.
"Before therapy, the majority of her day was aggravated. Now the majority of the day is calm," Noe said.
Treatment for autism can include physical, occupational and speech therapy. Speech pathologist Julie Layton said she has several autistic children on her caseload, which includes both lower and higher functioning children.
"There's such a large autistic spectrum. Many are verbal and can speak, and some are nonverbal. Autism could mean anyone on that spectrum, and a lot of the higher-functioning kids are being identified today," said Layton, who works at Kenny Rogers Children's Center in Sikeston, which provides therapy for autistic children.
To help nonverbal kids communicate, Layton said she teaches them sign language or uses a picture system, which uses pictures to let others know what they want.
"This is not to replace speech but encourage communication and a way to interact with people," Layton said.
Those on the verbal end of the spectrum are shown how to interact with their peers and others. The focus is on the social aspect, Layton said.
"I don't know that you can cure autism, but our children learn to process the world in an easier way for them," Noe said.
Education and early intervention is the key to helping autistic children, Noe said.
"It's a long road, but there is light at the end of the tunnel," Noe said. "Once you get a diagnosis, get ready. It's a long haul, but it's worth it. The meltdown days do end."
Meanwhile, Noe said she's trying to start a monthly support group.
"It's my passion now," Noe said about educating others about autism. "It's my every day life."