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Building autism awareness

Scappoose woman seeks to build support group for parents of children with autism


by: SUBMITTED - Devon, 11, has autism, though he has responded well to Applied Behavior Analysis, said his mom, Connie Gunn of Scappoose. Connie Gunn serves as the Oregon Autism Society representative for Columbia County and is hoping her recent efforts will soon result in the formation of a support group for local parents who have children with autism.

Gunn attended a class Jan. 25 in Eugene sponsored by the Oregon Family Support Network to learn how she could serve as a facilitator of the envisioned group. Now, she’s looking for other parents who are working through the challenges and triumphs of raising a child with autism to join her.

“I was going to put a blurb in the newspaper and find out if people are interested and go from there and see if people would want one,” the Scappoose woman said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control on March 27 released results from a program that monitored children at 11 sites in the United States in 2010 for Autism Spectrum Disorder, concluding that 1 in 68 children are on the autism spectrum. The figure marks an increase over CDC’s 2012 estimate that 1 in 88 children are on the autism spectrum.

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a brain disorder that manifests in childhood and is characterized by social difficulties, repetitive behavior and challenges with verbal and nonverbal communication. People diagnosed with autism include those with severe disabilities to those with Asperger’s syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder, the latter two resulting in socially functional behavior despite a trait or two identified as being on the autism spectrum.

Gunn’s goal for the support group is twofold. First, she wants to build a coalition of supportive parents who have shared experiences. Discovering a child has autism, she explains, triggers emotions of grief and loss, and parents must learn to cope with the new reality.

“Being a mother — or just a parent — of a special needs child can be very difficult because you go through almost a denial phase and then an acceptance phase, where sometimes you have to give up some of your dreams you have for your children,” she says. “The purpose of the support group would be to reduce isolation, reduce stress and discuss parenting issues with other parents.”

Second, she’s hoping any increased visibility that results from the group would translate into greater community awareness of autism. Too often people mistakenly assume her 11-year-old son, Devon, is just misbehaving, she says. Devon was diagnosed with autism when he was 3 years old.

“We had a lady in a store say to my son, ‘You’re too old to be acting like that. You shouldn’t be acting like that,’” Gunn recounts. She and her son had once been kicked out of a movie theater in Portland, and she says there are some places she just won’t go. She has even printed business card-sized explanatory messages she could hand out when her son acts up in public and draws uncomfortable stares.

“I printed them out because I felt like I needed to sometimes, because people are so judgmental,” she says. “I haven’t given one out, but I would.”

Instead, she says she hopes awareness about autism and, especially, how it affects children will lead to a more tolerant community.

“I think, today, that awareness is the key. Autism awareness is the key,” she says. “We’re all different in our own ways, and no two children with autism are the same. They experience it differently.”

Despite the challenges, Gunn says she wants for Devon what any parent should want for a child: for him to be happy and productive in society.

“I will support my son in whatever he chooses to do,” she says. “And I hope to find his niche, something that he loves and would like to do.”