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The hopeful face of autism

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Pete Broderick sat quietly as his speech therapist, Meredith Smith, showed him the card.

"You know our 'th' sound?" she asked.

It was their version of the Go Fish card game. Smith would show him a card with a picture on it, and he would sound out the object on the picture.

Smith had been with the seven-year-old since he began speech therapy as a toddler. He is much different, now, than when Smith first met him.

She met Broderick after he was diagnosed with autism, a "spectrum disorder" that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others.

Broderick was diagnosed at two years and nine months old. Around then, his vocabulary had collapsed to mere vocal grunts and occasional violent tantrums.

"There were some adjustments," said Teresa Rogula, Broderick's kindergarten teacher of two years at Unity Grove Elementary School in Locust Grove.

"Pete was a sweet little boy, a creative boy, but a bit unpredictable," she said. "He didn't like a change in routine. If something set him off, we would have a difficult time trying to get him back."

During his first year at the school, he did not interact with his peers, though they wanted to befriend him, Rogula said.

"Last year, he started to make friends," she said. "He started recognizing them as individuals. It was almost like a door opened up, and Pete could see that there was a world around him."

The turnaround, according to Rogula, was not without sacrifice for her then 23-student classroom. Her students had to eat their snacks outside in the hallway, could not use play-doh, and washed their hands more frequently than normal.

Even Rogula only used natural cleaning products to sanitize her classroom to stave off the chance that Broderick would have an allergic reaction to any of the products.

"I think the students learned tolerance and acceptance," said Rogula, who is visibly moved by Broderick's progress.

His vocabulary, she said, now revivals that of his peers and some older children.

"Had it not been for his parents, I think Pete would still be in this position," she said. "It takes a lot of dedication, research, and resources."

Broderick's mother, Hope Pepe, credits much of her son's recovery to the Babies Can't Wait (BCW) Program, a statewide interagency service-delivery system for infants and toddlers -- from birth to three years old -- with developmental delays or disabilities.

Broderick, now a first-grader at Unity Grove, is considered recovered from autism. Although, he still must adhere to a strict diet and attend therapy sessions during the school day.

Otherwise, he is at or above his grade-level, has no behavioral issues, and has been accepted by his peers at the school, according to Pepe.

"The first year [his peers] took care of him," Pepe said. "And the second year, he became one of them."

Her son was first diagnosed with autism in 2003. "I knew he was autistic before he got the diagnosis," she said. "But you still don't know until you get it. I cried for 24 hours straight before I decided to get him out of it and fight for him."

She said she got help from the BCW Program, which was able to provide her then- two-year-old son with various therapies. She said the therapies would have been costly without the program.

The Autism Society of America estimates that the cost of caring for a child with autism ranges from $3.5 million to $5 million over a lifetime.

"The first two years were the most expense," Pepe said. "It cost me more in the beginning, because I didn't know what I was doing and couldn't find a good doctor."

Marshalyn Yeargin-Allsopp, a developmental pediatrician and a consultant to the Clayton County BCW Program, advises that parents have their infant children assessed and screened regularly by a physician.

She said a child's primary physician should test the child for general developmental delays at 9, 18, and 24-30 months of age. Also, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, every child should be screened specifically for autism at 18 and 24 months.

"Parents shouldn't wait for the pediatrician to do the screening," Yeargin-Allsopp added. "The earlier we start the intervention, the more hope there can be that there will be improvement in the child's functioning. That gives them the best chance of improving their overall functioning."

Parents can contact their local BCW Program and receive a screening from a qualified physician, as well. For children, from birth to three years old, individual services can be provided, including speech or occupational therapy.

"Many parents come to see us and they are not thinking that their child has autism," Yeargin-Allsopp said. "They think that their child is slow, or stubborn, or that they cannot hear."

Parent Hope Pepe said she initially thought similarly about her seven-year-old son, Pete Broderick. "I thought he was deaf," Pepe said. "For him, it was the vaccines. He was getting progressively worse with his vaccines. The last shot that he had, he stopped talking. He started banging his head against things, and we lost all eye contact with him."

Pepe said her son is a regular education student now, recovered from autism and taking different therapy and adhering to certain diets to help keep him balanced biologically and physiologically. "I want people to stop thinking these kids are bad or broken," Pepe said. "Autism is treatable."

To learn more about Autism, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site.

Locally, Pepe has founded a group for autism recovery, called "What About Recovery" or W.A.R. The group will be hosting an Autism Awareness event at 7 p.m., on April 17 at Bethany Baptist Church, 4 North Bethany Road in McDonough, and at 2 p.m., on April 19 at Wesley Way United Methodist, 150 John Wesley Way in McDonough.

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On the net:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/actearly/