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With autism diagnoses on the rise, parents sort through treatment options
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With autism diagnoses on the rise, parents sort through treatment options

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When her son, Zane Donahue, started kindergarten two years ago, he began to lock himself in the bathroom and hide behind doors, Raquel Charrois said.

His erratic behavior and difficultly accepting direction led to a diagnosis of autism. Charrois, of Sun Prairie, sought behavioral treatment at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center, which has helped.

Now, if Zane finds the soap out of place, he puts it back, instead of having a meltdown. When Charrois inadvertently banged a lid atop a pot recently, fearing the sound would set him off as it had before, she was surprised to see him remain calm.

“He held up his hands, put his head down, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and said, ‘I know, I know, it’s OK,’ ” she said. “He’s a completely different child now.”

More children in Wisconsin and around the country are being diagnosed with autism, in part because of a broadened definition of the developmental disorder and more awareness of it. With the increase in prevalence, treatments for the condition have become more widely available.

Behavioral, speech, physical and occupational therapies are offered in the Madison area, as are alternatives such as dance and horse therapy and special diets. There is no cure for autism — which can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges — but early intervention can help, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in 92 school-aged children in Wisconsin are identified as having autism spectrum disorder, according to the most recent estimate last year. That is lower than the national rate of 1 in 68, but up from 1 in 102 in Wisconsin two years before. In 2010, the national rate was 1 in 110.

In the Madison School District, 580 students had individualized education programs stemming from a primary disability of autism last school year, up from 356 a decade ago, a 63 percent increase, spokeswoman Liz Merfeld said.

For parents, sorting through the range of therapy options can be a challenge. Many conventional treatments are covered by insurance, but most alternative therapies are not. Many people use a trial-and-error approach, said Mary Fruits, executive director of the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin in Madison.

“We encourage people to find what’s best for their family,” Fruits said.

Fruits’ 9-year-old son, Clyde, was diagnosed with autism just before his third birthday. He has had special education in school, along with occupational therapy and behavioral therapy — until this year, when the family decided he didn’t need behavioral therapy anymore.

“When he was first diagnosed, he was mostly non-verbal,” said Fruits, of McFarland. “Now, he’s very social ... If you meet my son, you probably wouldn’t know he has autism.”

Horse and dance therapy

Katie Ganshert, of Cottage Grove, brings her son, Rylee, 9, to Three Gaits, between Oregon and Stoughton, for therapeutic riding on horses. He also gets occupational, physical and speech therapy, and special education, through school.

The weekly horse riding sessions, carried out in a small group, “help him work on waiting his turn and listening closely to instructions,” Ganshert said. “He lights up when he’s on the horse.”

Dena Duncan, executive director at Three Gaits, said horse movement can stimulate or calm riders with autism, depending on the type of horse used and the rider’s sensory needs. Horse signals can be easier to understand than people’s social cues, Duncan said.

“There’s a certain reliability there, that’s easier for people with autism to read,” she said.

Jeanine Kiss provides dance movement therapy to children with autism and other conditions at the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy in Madison.

Mirroring the movements of children with autism can help them build trust and empathy, Kiss said. When one of her clients, now 11, first came to the center about four years ago, he played with balls and stuffed animals only by himself. Gradually, she used dance movement to encourage him to interact.

“Now, he’s engaged with me the entire session,” she said.

Sue Reilly, of Madison, a coordinator for the Wisconsin chapter of Talk About Curing Autism, or TACA, said some parents pursue special diets — such as those without gluten — and therapies known as biofeedback or sensory integration.

Behavioral therapy

The Waisman Center, which has long diagnosed children with autism, started offering treatment last year. Its programs are based on an approach called applied behavior analysis and a curriculum called the Early Start Denver Model, said Molly Murphy, autism treatment programs supervisor.

The goal is to help children with autism develop skills to live productive lives, such as getting dressed or gaining someone’s attention without interrupting, Murphy said.

“We’re not just looking at changing autism,” Murphy said. “We’re looking at how does autism affect families, and how can we help them get back to some semblance of a quality of life?”

On a recent day, 4-year-old Jay Klippel of Madison rode on a swing on the Waisman Center’s playground and drew pictures while sitting in a wagon, pulled by therapist Anna Schulz. He smiled and occasionally shrieked in delight, but didn’t talk.

Jay spoke dozens of words and recited his favorite books from memory before losing his speech after his second birthday, said his mother, Jennifer Klippel. He was diagnosed with autism when he was about 2½.

Behavioral treatment at the Waisman Center has not brought his language back. But it has helped him interact socially and seem much happier, his mother said.

“Before, he didn’t enjoy any family activities or outside play,” she said. “Now, he loves to go to the pool, and the park, and go for stroller rides.”

Zane Donahue, 7, has had no trouble speaking, but he has been inflexible socially and has had meltdowns if certain items are out of place, his mother said.

At a recent behavioral therapy session at the Waisman Center, Raquel Charrois told clinical social worker Erin Thompson that Zane had started to dress himself without a fuss.

He is warming up to a daily schedule Charrois is trying to implement, she said, and becoming more comfortable with tooth brushing since they switched to a liquid gel, even though she still has to do it for him.

“It’s not giving him blobs,” like his previous tooth paste, she said.

Showering is still a big challenge, however. Thomson suggested Charrois give Zane a big reward, like iPad time, if he complies.

Charrois took notes and vowed to try that and other tips.

“All of this stuff seems so simple when you write it on paper, but it is so not easy to live it out in real life,” she said.


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