Autism conference draws hundreds - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Autism conference draws hundreds

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DUBUQUE (KWWL) -- The Autism Society of America estimates around one and a half million Americans have some form of autism. They expect that number to rise to four million in the next ten years. Sunday, hundreds of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders came together in the tri-states.

"It's a neurological disorder that impacts a person's ability to understand and navigate the social interactions around them. Frequently, there's difficulty in communication, whether not having verbal language, or not understanding how to use verbal language. Typically there's unusual behavior that we notice," Alyson Beytien, an independent autism consultant, said.

400 parents of children with autism spectrum disorders want to know more about the mystery behind autism. "The Autism Conference" was sponsored by Dubuque's Mercy Medical Center and helped to provide answers.

"The biggest issue that we run into is trying to get everyone to realize and understand that the earliest interventions begin, the better for the child and the significant intensity of intervention is critical. Research has shown the earlier we can get that child into speech therapy and occupational therapy and educational intervention, the more likely there will be great success and the child will be able to progress really quickly," Beytien said.

The parents at the conference were all brought together by their children's autism spectrum disorders, but all with very different concerns and stories.

"I was actually planning to home school him, and when I tried to do that, I ran into all kinds of crazy problems. He would get mad when I'd show him how to color. I thought, we have a personality conflict here," Rhonda Mericle said.

Almost three years ago, Rhonda Mericle took her son Gabe to daycare. The provider noticed what she, her husband, and doctors hadn't: definite signs of autism. He was diagnosed at four and a half years old.

"There's a time on either side of that that you don't realize it's happening, and you're like, oh my god. He stopped talking, and it hit us right between the eyes, and it was devastating," Mericle said.

The Mericles hope with therapy Gabe will eventually be able to live independently .

"It's been a lot for my husband and I to wrap our minds around. How to take care of this boy, but it's fascinating, and he's funny and handsome and beautiful," Mericle said.

Like many parents, Mericle doesn't know what the future holds, but for now, the focus is on getting Gabe through each new day. Mericle said she is also becoming an advocate; trying to push for more resources and programming in schools and the community for children with autism spectrum disorders.

In the Dubuque Community School District, around 170 students use autism support services. That's slightly higher than the Center for Disease Control's estimate that one in 150 kids is diagnosed with a form of autism.

Online Reporter:  Jamie Grey

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