CHARLESTON, S.C. - What many individuals consider routine or ordinary tasks can be very difficult for some. Social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication as well as repetitive behavior are just a few things individuals diagnosed with autism struggle with everyday.
Autism is a general term for a group of complex disorders that affects behavioral development. Each individual with autism is unique. Many of those with autism have exceptional abilities in visual skills, music and academic skills. About 40 percent have average to above average intellectual abilities.
With April being the month of Autism Awareness, Reta Mills, Airman and Family Readiness Center Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator, is promoting a national campaign called “Light it up Blue” here at Joint Base Charleston.
The idea of the campaign is to have community members illuminate their front porches with blue lights to help bring awareness to autism throughout the month of April.
One of every 88 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism, nearly double the number of children diagnosed since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracking the disorder – autism can now officially be declared an epidemic in the U.S.
“The number of families within the military having children diagnosed with autism is on the rise,” said Mills. “We have programs for these families and their children such as the EFMP.”
The EFMP program provides support to military family members who have children with special needs, not just autism. An exceptional family member is defined as a person with any physical, emotional, developmental, educational or psychological condition that meets the Department of Defense criteria.
“Autism is one of the top three reasons military families are enrolled in the EFMP program,” said Mills.
Two families that deal with autism on a daily basis here are the Hoffman’s and Sole’s.
The Hoffman’s three-year-old son Hunter, was recently diagnosed with autism.
“We noticed something was wrong with Hunter because he didn’t talk, but rather hummed and would never make eye contact,” said Tricia Hoffman, wife of Staff Sgt. Justin Hoffman, 15th Airlift Squadron loadmaster, 437th Airlift Wing. “At first we thought he was deaf, because when he was evaluated at age two, the doctor said he was behind with speech.”
The Hoffman’s took Hunter to several doctors and finally enrolled him in speech therapy.
“The speech therapist worked with Hunter for weeks with little to no progress,” said Mrs. Hoffman. “She sat down with me and told me she had all the tools to help Hunter with speech, but there was something holding him back.”
The therapist hinted to the fact that Hunter may have autism. Their son was then evaluated for autism and was diagnosed with moderate to severe classical autism.
The Sole family received the news of their six-year-old son Carl, having autism while they were at Royal Air Base Lakenheath, England, and had it reconfirmed here.
“As a baby, Carl didn’t cry and we often found him staring at something, but not really looking at anything,” said Sarah Sole, wife of Tech. Sgt. Carl Sole, 628th Security Forces Squadron flight chief. “We later found out his staring spells were focal seizures.”
The Sole family has one daughter and two sons. All three are enrolled in the base EFMP program. Their oldest child eight-year-old Xander, has Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder as well as multiple learning disabilities. Carl has Autism Spectrum Disorder in addition to epilepsy, cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities as a result of periventricular leukomalacia. The Soles youngest child Phillip has speech and fine motor delays.
“The EFMP program has helped us immensely in making sure my family’s needs are met and that the base we are at can provide us with the appropriate services,” said Mrs. Sole.
Since there is currently no cure for autism, the EFMP program offers assistance for families to find programs to counteract the symptoms of the disease.
“Research has shown early detection of autism is paramount to helping the individuals cope with the symptoms of the disease,” said Mills. “The newest program is Applied Behavior Analysis or ABA therapy.”
ABA therapy uses specific techniques and interventions to help children with autism or other special needs succeed. Both the Hoffman’s and Sole’s have their child enrolled in ABA therapy.
“A therapist comes to our home six days a week for about three hours and teaches Carl words, numbers and how to put clothes on properly,” said Mrs. Sole. “He has come a long way since the start of the therapy.”
Carl recently learned his age and home address, which is a huge step, said Kayleigh Norton, ABA therapist.
While Carl receives ABA therapy at home, Hunter receives the therapy at his school.
“Hunter struggles with speaking, making eye contact and basic social skills,” said Mrs. Hoffman.
Even though Hunter struggles with simple things such as speaking or social interactions, he has abilities that are very uncommon for children his age.
“Hunter is very coordinated and can retain large amounts of information,” said Mrs. Hoffman. “He knows all the colors and not just red, green, blue or yellow. He knows colors like chartreuse.”
Chartreuse is a color halfway between yellow and green. Hunter is also able to determine what the combination of two colors will make.
Hunter is especially skilled with computers.
“He knows how to do more with a computer than I do,” Mrs. Hoffman jokingly said. “His therapist believes he has an over active intelligence and that he will be more intelligent than the average person.”
Just like any child, Carl and Hunter have interests of their own. Carl love’s cars, and Hunter is interested in sports, and especially hockey.
Even with all the programs for children with autism, a big question still weighs on the minds of parents. “What does the future hold for my child?”
“We are realistic in the fact that we know Carl is different and will be either at home or in a group home as an adult,” said Mrs. Sole. “Our hope is that he will be as self sufficient as possible and will be accepted as he grows older.”
The Sole family understands that because Carl is different they have to take their child’s milestones and break them into super baby steps to help him achieve the little goals.
“It took Carl three and a half years to learn how to jump” said Mrs. Sole. “When he figured it out I just screamed with excitement. Success is measured in small victories.”
The Hoffman’s hope for Hunter is that he can live a normal life.
“I worry that Hunter will not be understood by others, but through speaking out and telling others about Autism maybe I can help,” said Mrs. Hoffman. “I can only hope people will accept him and have a little more patience, without discriminating against him.”
The Hoffman’s often joke about having a “Hunter” apartment, knowing that as he gets older they want him to have his freedom and independence, but still have the support of the family if he needs it.
“I just want what is best for Hunter,” said Mr. Hoffman. “I want him to have a normal life and have friends and to be happy. I want him to have the things any father would want their child to have.”
The AFRC hosts monthly support group meetings the last Thursday of each month for EFMP families. The group allows parents to share their good and bad experiences in coping and managing life with an exceptional family member.
“The support group here is very proactive,” said Mrs. Sole. “Rather than just sitting around complaining about issues, we try to resolve them by bringing them to the right people’s attention.”
Families looking to join the support group or get more information about the EFMP program can contact Reta Mills at 963-4411.