TREATING AUTISM: Two families share their stories - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

TREATING AUTISM: Two families share their stories

by Jamie Grey

DUBUQUE (KWWL) -- April is autism awareness month. One in 150 kids is diagnosed with some form of autism according to the Centers for Disease Control. There are hundreds of different methods parents use to help their kids with autism spectrum disorders, often facing difficult choices and challenges. KWWL talked to two families about what's working for them.

"Gabe's sensory system is completely out of whack," Rhonda Mericle said.

Gabe Mericle is afraid of certain sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures, like the gooey feeling of pudding. Bright lights, high-pitched voices and toilets flushing are also on his list of fears.

"He experiences fight or flight, and it's very real to him," Mericle said.

With autism, a neurological disorder, his brain doesn't process correctly what his senses tell him.

"When he covers his ears or he is afraid of something, he is genuinely afraid like you would be if someone snuck up on you in a dark alley and put a gun to your head," Mericle said.

Gabe goes to therapy at Unified Therapy in Dubuque four times a week. On the day we visited, an occupational therapist worked with Gabe on the particular texture of pudding.

"We worked a lot on overcoming some of that, what's called sensory defensiveness. The negative response to things that are not negative, basically. Such as toothpaste, and soap, and noises and smells," occupational therapist Emily Christensen said.

To help even more, Gabe's mom has set up a therapy room at home.

"It's around the clock, seven days a week," Mericle said. "Every morning, I put him through an occupational therapy session."

Alyson Beytien is an autism consultant and an expert with experience. Her three teenage sons are all on the autism spectrum.

"Probably tried just about anything that was even remotely valid for some of our kids because like other parents, we were desperate," Beytien said.

Beytien says one of the biggest obstacles for parents is the cost of treatment. The Beytiens took out a second mortgage on their home to pay for therapy.

"We have families taking second mortgages out. They are beg, borrowing, and stealing everything they can. Second jobs, anything they can to pay for the therapy that makes a difference," Beytien said. "Some have just been a total bust, but at least as a parent, you go, okay, I tried, and there we go."

For Gabe, a combination of speech, physical, and occupational therapy are helping, though the long-term is uncertain.

"I don't know if he'll ever get over [the fears], but we have to keep trying," Mericle said.

For now, it's concentrating on one success at a time.

"He actually independently put his hand into the oatmeal for the first time, and actually allowed the vanilla, normally we've just been doing chocolate. That was actually a lot, even though it didn't look like it. Sometimes therapy looks a lot like play, but there's a lot of science and art behind it," Christensen said.

Gabe's parents hope through therapy, he'll eventually be able to live independently.

"It's no different with a typically developing child. You want them to grow up, go to college, get married, have kids and be happy. That's pretty much it. It just is going to be a different journey with him," Mericle said.

Beytien says most insurance plans won't cover occupational or speech therapy, so many parents have too foot the bill, or depend on schools to provide services. A bill currently in the state legislature would get insurance to pay for applied behavioral analysis therapy (ABA therapy) what these parents say has helped the most.

Tips for choosing a therapy (from independent autism consultant Alyson Beytien)
Beytien suggests using these questions when looking for an intervention method:

  1. Find out exactly what results are expected. Ask: "What do you mean by success? Did language increase? Did social interactions increase? Did it stay?"
  2. Examine whether the intervention matches specific needs. Ask: "Does that need match my child?"
  3. Think about if your family is a good fit. Ask: "Is this valid for my family?" Beytien says that often comes down to financial, lifestyle and time issues.

Beytien says to always be cautious if an intervention claims to "cure" autism.

Online Reporter: Jamie Grey

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