SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
They laugh, they smile, they cry and cause trouble. Autistic children are like their peers in many respects but different in others. And for reasons no one completely understands, their numbers are growing.
The prevalence of autism spectrum disorders has been steadily rising in recent decades and most recently was estimated at one in every 88 children nationwide, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published last year.
In Colorado, the rate is even higher: one in every 85 children, according to the study.
The study also found the disorder is five times more common in boys then in girls.
What causes autism and why the prevalence is climbing are two of the unanswered questions surrounding the disorder.
“We can’t say for sure that there is not something in particular that is causing the number of children with autism to go up, but there is increased awareness about the disorder,” Lisa Miller, disease control and environmental epidemiology division director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said.
Autism is defined as a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication. Autism spectrum disorder is the umbrella term used to cover its many manifestations. Asperger syndrome describes what many consider to be a more mild variation of the disorder because sufferers possess normal intelligence and verbal skills but are impaired in their social interactions.
Tara Kiene, director of case management at Community Connections in Durango, said disorders on the spectrum may have varying origins.
“The reality is that no one really knows what the causes are; no one is even sure whether there is one specific cause or multiple causes,” she said.
No official study has been done to calculate the number of cases in the Southwest. Kiene, with Community Connections, estimates that, based on the organization’s clients, autism effects about 5 percent of the population of La Plata, Archuleta, Montezuma, Dolores, and San Juan counties.
While much remains unknown about the disorder, families living with it know its effects.
Alyssa Dinger, 8, had recognizable developmental delays from the time she was 1, said her mother, Angie Dinger.
She was born early and had a lung collapse along with some other significant medical issues after birth.
It was when Alyssa was 4 years old that a psychiatrist at Riverview Elementary School evaluated her and diagnosed her with autism.
“It was terrible,” Angie Dinger said. “We were looking at her as an individual with differences and her own uniqueness. When we got the label, it was permanent, and it was just shocking – we weren’t prepared for the diagnosis even though we knew that all of the differences existed.”
Dinger and husband, Greg, have pushed for their daughter to receive the best possible education.
“We’ve gone a long way with advocating her in the school system. We’re in a completely different place now then we were at the beginning,” she said.
In many ways, her days are similar to those of any second-grader.
“She’s in a regular classroom with age-appropriate peers. She has differences, but she has access to the same materials as her classmates,” Angie Dinger said.
This arrangement has been key, she said.
“Prior to kindergarten, we spent a lot of time learning and researching so we advocated to have Alyssa included in a general-education classroom with her age-appropriate peers,” she said. “By doing that, Alyssa has many healthy social peer relationships which she would have missed out on if she would have been separated in a different classroom.”
Amy Kendziorski, executive director of student services for Durango School District 9-R, said the district strives to provide this experience for special-needs students.
“We want every child to start in the normal classroom and additional aids can be implemented there,” she said. “We want to be able to serve a wide range of disabilities in the classroom.”
What works for one student may not work for another.
“Each and every kid is so different – there is not a standard or across-the-board system. It is all individualized,” Kendziorski said.
Bouncing balls, swings, a ball pit, and play rooms that serve as sensory therapy are available to all students.
“In each of our programs, we have sensory rooms where kids can unwind, have calming things, and sensory motivating tools,” Kendziorski said.
As much as possible, Alyssa learns what their peers are learning, Angie Dinger said.
“We continue to put age-appropriate education materials in front of her, giving her the opportunity to access what her peers are accessing,” she said.
The approach is paying off.
“The way she communicates with her friends, her relationships, she’s happy, she smiles nonstop, she’s loving, she hugs her friends, she goes through the routines in the classroom, and she wants to go to school, she enjoys all of those things,” her mother said.
Focusing on what Alyssa can do has helped her thrive.
“I’ve had my fair share of tears, but our family decided we weren’t going to let a disability label stand in the way to finding out what Alyssa’s abilities are,” her mother said.
Help from their wider circle also has helped.
“It takes a village,” Dinger said. “All of the friends, the family, advocates, the school and the therapists – it’s a pretty big team that makes us feel more supported and stronger in carrying each day out.”