April 2 marked World Autism Awareness Day. This neurobiological disorder is now being diagnosed in one out of every 150 people which is not limited by race or gender. Celebrities like Yoko Ono and Jenny McCarthy are stepping in to help raise funds for organizations dedicated to autism awareness, prevention and detection.

According to the Alabama State Department of Education, Lee County alone enrolled more than 10,000 children with disabilities during 2007.

For more than 23 years, The Learning Tree, Inc. has existed to assist special needs children including those with autism. Opelika, Ala. is houses one its branches: The Little Learning Tree Learning Center, a grant funded preschool program.

Auburn University’s Department of Psychology Master’s program has partnered with The Learning Tree, Inc. to develop a preschool program for children with autism. “It’s an intensive early intervention behavioral site for children with autism but they also incorporate those children in the classroom with typical children,” senior in psychology, Lucia Dwyer, said.

Incorporating typical students with those with autism helps to develop the children’s language and socialization skills.

Beginning this spring, Dwyer, like other volunteers, was assigned a student with whom she worked one-on-one to help with the child’s development. Dwyer already can attest to notable differences in the child’s behavior.

“He’s really come a long way,” Dwyer said. “It’s such an amazing experience to see him go from just playing with toys ,not really engaging in the toys just pressing buttons to actually being engaged. He’s making more eye contact and more physical.”

The program began in 1983 when three parents of handicapped children in Mobile County decided to develop an environment that could give their children individualize instruction.

“At the Little Tree, they really teach them to be independent so he’s learning all of the skills he needs to, in the long run, be in a classroom with typical children and to live on his own when he gets to be that age,” Dwyer said.
Autism is not diagnosed by any one particular symptom and a cause for the disorder is still unknown. According to the Autism Society of America, most children are diagnosed by the age of 3, but can be detected in children as young as 6 months. Some of the symptoms include:
• Insistence on sameness; resistance to change
• Difficulty in expressing needs, using gestures or pointing instead of words
• Repeating words or phrases in place of normal, responsive language
• Laughing (and/or crying) for no apparent reason; showing distress for reasons not apparent to others
• Preference to being alone; aloof manner
• Tantrums
• Difficulty in mixing with others
• Not wanting to cuddle or be cuddled
• Little or no eye contact
• Unresponsive to normal teaching methods
• Sustained odd play
• Spinning objects
• Obsessive attachment to objects
• Apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain
• No real fears of danger
• Noticeable physical over-activity or extreme under-activity
• Uneven gross/fine motor skills
• Non-responsive to verbal cues; acts as if deaf, although hearing tests in normal range

There is no cure for the disorder, either. There are several treatments and therapies available depending on the level of the child’s functionality. Younger brains are more easily trained and thus early detection, like many other disorders and diseases, is key.

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