When Sherris Richards’ daughter, Faith, was diagnosed with autism at 18-months it impacted her entire family. “It devastated us to the core,” she says. “I think it affected us even more because we didn’t know about autism.”
The initial shock of the diagnosis caused Richards and her husband, Tony, to believe they could handle their daughter’s care alone. “I thought I could work with my daughter and take care of her autism.”
At the time, the Richards lived in Pennsylvania where autism treatment was very progressive. “We were provided with 3 hours of floor play therapy a day and, initially, I was concerned with how that was going to fit into our schedule,” she notes. “But once I got over my attitude, the therapy was the best thing that ever happened to us.”
The Richards participated in support groups and therapy services, focusing on the care of their daughter and family. “We sought out the support we needed and were able to do what we needed to do to get our daughter on track.”
In 2006, the Richards moved to Bismarck and soon realized the community was in need of the same type of support. “When we moved here my husband said, ‘We need to get something going,’” she says. “There were families that just jumped on board to get our group started.”
The group became a chapter of the national organization Autism Speaks and later developed their own identity as the North Dakota Autism Connection. Richards now serves as executive director of the organization. “Our goal is to educate the community and to provide encouragement and support to families living with autism,” she says.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is a term given to a group of bio-neurological developmental disabilities that impair the way individuals interact and communicate with others. Autism impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills, and cognitive function.
Individuals with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication and leisure or play activities. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, generally appearing before the age of 3.
One out of every 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with autism and the rate of diagnosis is four times more prevalent in boys than girls. A new case is diagnosed every 20 minutes, making autism the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States.
“There are many children diagnosed but also many undiagnosed,” says Richards. “You can’t look at a person and see the disorder or pinpoint all of the signs and say they have autism.”
She says one of the most prevalent symptoms of autism is sensory issues. “Our children experience both hypo and hyper sensitivities. Things such as lights and perfumes cause certain behaviors, and they may not have good eye contact because it actually hurts their eyes to look into yours.”
These behaviors can spur one of the greatest misconceptions related to the disorder, says Richards. “People can be very judgmental because they don’t understand,” she notes. “They may think the parents are bad because they don’t do certain things when these behaviors arise, but the parent struggles to help their child and also deal with the stares of others.”
Both therapy and early intervention can help the individual with autism and their family, she notes. “This is why we push therapy, so we can help children deal with their sensory issues. And, as the parent learns about how to help the child, they can educate others.”
There are many different approaches to treating autism, says Richards, but the best options often change with each individual.
One facility helping children with autism improve their communication and function within society is Red Door Pediatric Therapy. “When families come to us, they usually have children struggling with behaviors and communications,” says Kelli Ellenbaum, a speech therapist at the facility. “Once parents understand how and why their children communicate the way they do, it is easier to move forward in building a meaningful relationship using strategies taught in therapy.”
Ellenbaum says Red Door Pediatric Therapy takes a team approach to treating autism, pairing speech therapy with occupational therapy. “We address communication by helping children learn verbal communication, augmentative communication devices, such as the iPad, and pictures.”
Occupational therapy helps children manage sensory difficulties as well as learn daily living skills. “Children with autism interpret visual information, touch, taste, texture, sound, smell, and body awareness much differently,” notes Ellenbaum. “We help parents and community members interpret a child’s behavior as a meaningful exchange of communication.”
She says children with autism should begin therapy by age two, but most typically start by age four or five. Red Door Pediatric Therapy also includes training for parents which helps to continue skill development in home and community environments.
Ellenbaum says children with autism have unique abilities and often require a different means of communication to accommodate their learning styles. “Children with autism often have average or above average cognitive skills and when information is presented in a way that can be understood, amazing things happen.”
The North Dakota Autism Connection
“We want to work with children that have autism and help them to live successful lives,” say Richards. “We look at what we can do now and how we can go forward.”
The North Dakota Autism Connection offers monthly meetings, along with community workshops, to allow families to connect and promote advocacy. The organization also plans activities, including sports nights at the YMCA, arts activities with VSA ND and the annual Autism Awareness Walk. “There is power in numbers,” says Richards. “We support each other in going out and doing activities.”
Red Door Pediatric Therapy is involved with the organization through the Autism Awareness Walk and various event sponsorships. “The ND Autism Connection provides a way for families to get together and know they have both exceptional and awesome kids,” says Ellenbaum.
Richards says it will always be important to help those living with autism, both her own loved ones and those she meets through the North Dakota Autism Connection. “As long as there is autism, we want to help.”
For additional information on the North Dakota Autism Connection and the resources available to individuals and families living with autism visit www.ndautismconnection.org. Information on the services provided by Red Door Pediatric Therapy is also available at www.reddoorpediatric.com.