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Local demand for autism services keeps growing

Apr. 19, 2008 @ 10:24 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Awareness of autism is on the rise nationally, which contributes to a growing demand locally for services to help people with the disorder.

With wide-ranging support from the Autism Services Center, the West Virginia Autism Training Center at Marshall University, and the Huntington Area Autism Society, many area advocates consider Huntington to be somewhat of a haven for people with autism.

The Seventh Annual Autism Awareness Event was held Saturday at Ritter Park as part of Autism Awareness Month. The event asked participants to raise funds for the three local organizations by walking, running or biking for autism.

While events like these seem to grow each year, some say services for adults are still lacking and funds are always needed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported increased prevalence of autism in recent years. Data released in 2007 indicated that about one in 150 8-year-old children in multiple areas of the United States had an Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Autism is perhaps the most commonly known of the autism spectrum disorders -- developmental disabilities that impair social interaction and communication and cause unusual behaviors and interests, according to the CDC.

Despite growing needs, Ruth Christ Sullivan says Huntington probably has more services and awareness for autism than any city elsewhere.

Sullivan is largely responsible for most of the services available locally today. She came to Huntington decades ago, when most people couldn't even spell autism, she said. She chose Huntington over a town in Massachusetts after finding that a local elementary school had a class for autistic children.

"As far as I know, there was no state anywhere or any public school system that had a regular classroom in a regular school for kids with autism," she said.

Today Sullivan's son, Joseph, is in his late 40s and works in the community, both at the Autism Training Center and Autism Services Center. He still loves numbers, as portrayed in the 1988 film, "Rain Man."

Sullivan said the progress made locally over the years has been phenomenal.

"Huntington has truly reacted and come together to fight for autism," she said.

Still, more research and programs are needed, according to Elaine Harvey, president of the Huntington Area Autism Society and parent of a 41-year-old with autism.

Harvey's son was diagnosed with autism when he was around 13 years old. He uses facilitated communication, and growing up, no one knew just how smart he was, she said. He taught himself how to read, and has since said he should have been taught reading and math "just like the other kids," Harvey said.

"He was taking in all this information like a sponge but unable to give it back," she said.

Today her son lives in a group home and works in the community. Harvey said she is grateful for those services.

Sullivan said the Autism Services Center has had a program for autistic adults since 1984, providing them with jobs and job coaches. The center also provides everything from residential services to individualized training and social skills.

"All the time we're training someone how to behave in public," said Sullivan, who retired as director of the Autism Services Center in 2007.

While teachers and others come from all over to be trained at places like the Autism Training Center and Autism Services Center, others sometimes have a hard time accessing programs. The Autism Services Center assists people in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties, for example, but does not extend to Lawrence County, Ohio.

Karen Graham of Proctorville has a 10-year-old son with Asperger syndrome. She said few services exist in her immediate area, apart from a Lawrence County Asperger and autism support group she organized and a sensory room at the Open Door School.

"It's very frustrating on this side of the river because we have a whole group of families needing help," she said.

Sullivan said the area needs more trained staff and funding is always an issue.

Working with people with autism can be very trying, and staff are paid little compared to what their worth, she said.

"It's hard work. It's intellectual work. You have to be able to put yourself into some one else's shoes. 'What is making him do this?'" she said.

Sullivan also said more government funding to help families of people with autism meet their financial needs also is needed in the state, and such funding should be able to cross state lines. Currently it does not.