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Health Team

As autism diagnoses rise, parents consider treatment options

Posted September 11

Jay Klippel, 4, who has autism, explores the backyard of his Madison, Wis. home on Aug. 30, 2017. Klippel doesn't speak, so therapists have given him picture cards to explain his wishes, such as cards indicating he's hungry or needs to go to the bathroom. He is expected to get an electronic communication device soon. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

— When her son, Zane Donahue, started kindergarten two years ago, he began to lock himself in the bathroom and hide behind doors, Raquel Charrois said.

His erratic behavior and difficultly accepting direction led to a diagnosis of autism, Wisconsin State Journal reported . Charrois, of Sun Prairie, sought behavioral treatment at UW-Madison's Waisman Center, which has helped.

Now, if Zane finds the soap out of place, he puts it back, instead of having a meltdown. When Charrois inadvertently banged a lid atop a pot recently, fearing the sound would set him off as it had before, she was surprised to see him remain calm.

"He held up his hands, put his head down, closed his eyes, took a deep breath and said, 'I know, I know, it's OK,' " she said. "He's a completely different child now."

More children in Wisconsin and around the country are being diagnosed with autism, in part because of a broadened definition of the developmental disorder and more awareness of it. With the increase in prevalence, treatments for the condition have become more widely available.

Behavioral, speech, physical and occupational therapies are offered in the Madison area, as are alternatives such as dance and horse therapy and special diets. There is no cure for autism — which can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges — but early intervention can help, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One in 92 school-aged children in Wisconsin are identified as having autism spectrum disorder, according to the most recent estimate last year. That is lower than the national rate of 1 in 68, but up from 1 in 102 in Wisconsin two years before. In 2010, the national rate was 1 in 110.

In the Madison School District, 580 students had individualized education programs stemming from a primary disability of autism last school year, up from 356 a decade ago, a 63 percent increase, spokeswoman Liz Merfeld said.

For parents, sorting through the range of therapy options can be a challenge. Many conventional treatments are covered by insurance, but most alternative therapies are not. Many people use a trial-and-error approach, said Mary Fruits, executive director of the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin in Madison.

"We encourage people to find what's best for their family," Fruits said.

Fruits' 9-year-old son, Clyde, was diagnosed with autism just before his third birthday. He has had special education in school, along with occupational therapy and behavioral therapy — until this year, when the family decided he didn't need behavioral therapy anymore.

"When he was first diagnosed, he was mostly non-verbal," said Fruits, of McFarland. "Now, he's very social ... If you meet my son, you probably wouldn't know he has autism."

Katie Ganshert, of Cottage Grove, brings her son, Rylee, 9, to Three Gaits, between Oregon and Stoughton, for therapeutic riding on horses. He also gets occupational, physical and speech therapy, and special education, through school.

The weekly horse riding sessions, carried out in a small group, "help him work on waiting his turn and listening closely to instructions," Ganshert said. "He lights up when he's on the horse."

Dena Duncan, executive director at Three Gaits, said horse movement can stimulate or calm riders with autism, depending on the type of horse used and the rider's sensory needs. Horse signals can be easier to understand than people's social cues, Duncan said.

"There's a certain reliability there, that's easier for people with autism to read," she said.

Jeanine Kiss provides dance movement therapy to children with autism and other conditions at the Hancock Center for Dance/Movement Therapy in Madison.

Mirroring the movements of children with autism can help them build trust and empathy, Kiss said. When one of her clients, now 11, first came to the center about four years ago, he played with balls and stuffed animals only by himself. Gradually, she used dance movement to encourage him to interact.

"Now, he's engaged with me the entire session," she said.

Sue Reilly, of Madison, a coordinator for the Wisconsin chapter of Talk About Curing Autism, or TACA, said some parents pursue special diets — such as those without gluten — and therapies known as biofeedback or sensory integration.

Mirroring the movements of children with autism can help them build trust and empathy, Kiss said. When one of her clients, now 11, first came to the center about four years ago, he played with balls and stuffed animals only by himself. Gradually, she used dance movement to encourage him to interact.

"Now, he's engaged with me the entire session," she said.

Sue Reilly, of Madison, a coordinator for the Wisconsin chapter of Talk About Curing Autism, or TACA, said some parents pursue special diets — such as those without gluten — and therapies known as biofeedback or sensory integration.

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