Shared experiences: Groups provide support for autistic children, families

Photo by Michael Buckelew

Photo by Michael Buckelew

CONYERS -- Jamal Graves learned how to walk at age 11 months and, like other toddlers, began to try to form words. But at age 2, he stopped talking. Doctors told his mother, Sirena Graves, not to worry, that boys take longer to talk.

He began speech therapy at 21/2, but by 3 his primary source of communication was screaming, and eventually sign language. Psychologists diagnosed him with pervasive developmental disorder.

It was not until late in his fourth year, thanks to an observant teacher, that specialists at the Marcus Institute in Atlanta provided Jamal with a more specific diagnosis -- autism.

"I had never heard of autism so I was completely clueless," said Sirena Graves. "It changed pretty much everything because we kind of knew which way to go."

April is Autism Awareness Month and while over the past several decades strides have been made to understand and treat this developmental disability, there is still a long way to go, according to officials at the Autism Society.

In a press release, the Autism Society cites a report released late last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which indicates that 1 percent of the U.S. population, or one in 110 children age 8 in 2006, exhibited an autism spectrum disorder.

"This confirms what we at the Autism Society have been saying for years about the prevalence of autism in America and the critical importance of early identification and interventions," said Lee Grossman, Autism Society President and CEO, in the release.

A complex neurodevelopmental disability, autism affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. It is considered a spectrum disorder because it affects different people to varying degrees. Autistic people struggle to various extents with speech, eye contact and physical touch.

Jamal, who is now 10, began talking at age 6, said his mother. He has an excellent vocabulary and can read but can't comprehend what the words mean. Jamal is also proficient in math and writing, and can operate a computer.

Loud noises bother Jamal and he is not social. Behavior is a challenge and his mother uses a weighted vest to calm the 190-pound young man down when he is upset. He also self-stimulates by playing with his fingers in front of his face and making noises.

Jamal can tolerate touch but not make eye contact.

"He's the one in the middle and it's hard to handle because you don't know which way to take him," said his mother. "He can't do some things but can do a lot of things. It's finding the balance."

Graves started the Rockdale County Autism Support Group a year ago to provide parents with a forum to share their experiences and learn about local resources that can help their children. The group meets the third Tuesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Conyers. There is no cost to attend and childcare, including for children with disabilities, is provided.

Typically about 25 to 30 people attend the meetings which feature speakers and discussions on activities and fundraisers for the group.

"Come by for support," said Graves to parents and caretakers of autistic children and adults. "All families are going through the same thing. And what you have gone through might be able to help another parent."

Parent Wendy Moseley is the mother of two boys, Grant, 10, and Holt, 5, who exhibit autistic characteristics. Responding to a lack of activities for her boys, Moseley recently started a play group, Kids Club, for children with high functioning autism, Asperger's syndrome and other social anxiety disorders.

"You want them to have the social interaction outside of school like their peers do. A lot of activities like Boy Scouts or soccer might be just a little too much for some of the children," she said.

Kids Club meets bimonthly at Johnson Park in Conyers and includes activities both on and off site such as bowling, pool parties, adapted sports, crafts and visiting museums.

Moseley said interest in the group, which serves ages 5 to 13, is strong, and she sees the need for a middle school age play group, as well.

"You can tell they really do like it and get excited about it and a couple have fostered relationships," said Moseley of Kids Club members.

For more information on the Rockdale County Autism Support Group, visit http://rockdaleautismspectru.intuitwebsites.com/index.html. For information on the Kids Club, call Tom McPike, Rockdale County therapeutic recreation coordinator, at 770-278-7249 or e-mail tom.mcpike@rockdalecounty.org.