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By ROBERT VILLANUEVA email@example.com “There are no miracle cures,” Bill Ridlon of Elizabethtown said, referring to autism. Ridlon’s son James — who is now 19 — was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 1/2 years old. Autism is “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others,” according to the Autism Society of America. It is classified as a “spectrum disorder” and covers a wide range of behaviors and symptoms that vary from individual to individual, so recognizing it can be tricky. “There is no blood test for autism so it is a clinical diagnosis,” Dr. John McCleerey, a family practitioner in Elizabethtown, said. McCleerey has seen patients that he felt could be autistic but knows they need to be evaluated by other professionals before a diagnosis can be made. “I try to refer them on to a specialist,” he said. Possible signs of autism for a child of 18 months include the inability to make eye contact or to orient to his or her name, a tendency for non-verbal communication rather than verbal, no mimicking of adult speech or behavior and tension in joints. Parents should be aware that these symptoms are not all-inclusive and do not mean a child is autistic, McCleerey said. A child suspected of being autistic should go to his or her primary care provider for a screening and, if necessary, seek further professional help from a specialist. Two screenings are designed specifically to help evaluate a child for autism: the Pervasive Developmental Disorders Screening Test and the Checklist for Autism in Toddlers. Both involve communication with and observation of the child. “They should be able to follow your face,” McCleerey said. “They should come to you to hug or talk.” A child unable or unwilling to do those things isn’t necessarily autistic, and a child who tests positive on the screenings isn’t necessarily autistic, either, the doctor said. Positive results on the screenings simply indicate the child needs to be further evaluated. “The earlier you catch it, the better long-term outcomes you’ll have,” he said. The onset of Ridlon's son’s autism was marked by “a sudden loss of social and behavioral skills and regression in behavior.” Specifically, James lost almost all the words he had learned up until then and began “hand flapping” behavior, Ridlon said. Ultimately James was diagnosed with Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, a type of autism that has a bleak prognosis. In fact, one psychologist told Ridlon that by the time James was 15, he would have to be institutionalized. After lots of reading, talking to people, research and “a lot of not taking ‘no’ for an answer” Ridlon and his wife, Pam, who is James’s step-mother, managed to change the outcome. “I think we’ve beat the prognosis quite a bit,” Ridlon said. Ridlon suggested that parents of a child diagnosed with autism seek help through teachers, therapists and aides in their school system. He also cited local agencies, organizations and programs, such as Communicare, which offers help to children with developmental disabilities, and Camp TESSA, a one-week summer camp program in Elizabethtown designed specifically for autistic students. Another resource, particularly for military families, is the Exceptional Family Member Program of Army Community Services. And a variety of therapies also can be helpful, such as music therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and horseback riding therapy. Parents of autistic children are not alone, Ridlon said, and they should not give up. Robin Shadrick of Elizabethtown credits early intervention with helping her son, Brady, when he showed signs of autism at 15 months. Brady’s rocking back and forth and fixation with television that was almost a “trance” state caused Shadrick to suspect Brady might be autistic. “He was kind of like in his own little world,” Shadrick said. When frustration and communication issues arose about the age of 16 months, Shadrick found First Steps, a statewide early intervention program that offers services for children with developmental disabilities up to the age of 3. Though he was not diagnosed as autistic, Brady was considered developmentally the age of a 12-month-old when he was 16 months old. After speech therapy and occupational therapy, Brady began to improve and was not only accepted into a pre-school program but became a leader in his class. Now 5, Brady is speaking “non-stop,” plays baseball, reads at a kindergarten level and knows multiplication tables. “He is just the perfect example of what early intervention can do,” Shadrick said. Early intervention also came into play for Stephanie Turner of Munfordville. At the age of about 18 months, her daughter, Nevaeh, began showing signs of autism. “She had only about 10 words, and she started losing them,” Turner said. She remembered how her daughter could no longer say “fish.” Other signs included being a late walker and not responding to her name. After getting help from First Steps, Regional Child Development Clinics in Bowling Green and her local school system, Turner was able to enroll her daughter in preschool. Nevaeh, now 5, recently graduated. Turner encouraged parents of autistic children to include them in activities, not to hide them away or hold them back from social outings. "I take my child everywhere I go," she said. Robert Villanueva can be reached at (270) 505-1743.