Thursday, May 3, 2007

Caring for Kaleb; dealing with autism

Some kids are rewarded with toys, others with candy, but all Kaleb Lichty wants is to see the garage doors go up and down.

He is obsessed with lights and ceiling fans. When the garage doors open, he flaps his hands with excitement like it's the Fourth of July.

"Because they make different geometric shapes as they go up and down," said his father, David Lichty.

Kaleb, 5, has high-functioning autism, also called PDD-NOS or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.

Unlike most kids with severe cases of autism, he can speak at a level close to his age. He loves to be hugged and tickled. He eats his most of dinner and plays with his 2-year-old brother, Braydon.

"Because he can talk and communicate and express his needs, people, when they first meet him, they don't realize there's anything different," said his mother, Kerri Lichty. "(But) spend some time with him and you'll see the differences."

Although Kerri and David Lichty of Battle Creek hold master's degrees and work with children daily — Kerri, 38, is a special education teacher and David, 37, is the head teacher at a day care center — neither could figure out why their first child was "different."

"When he was born he would suck your finger, but he wouldn't suck a bottle or nipple," Kerri Lichty said. "He's very sensory. ... He didn't walk until he was 17 months. He lifted his legs because he didn't like to put his feet down and feel the ground."

They didn't know they were seeing autism.

"If he was severely autistic, we would have caught it early on," Kerri Lichty explained.

Children with autism generally have poor language skills, poor social skills and dominating interests, said Dr. Richard Solomon, a psychologist specializing in autism spectrum disorders. The kids are placed somewhere on the spectrum of disorders, which includes specific categories such as Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome and PDD-NOS.

Kids with Asperger syndrome are usually diagnosed later in life because they have normal language development and often above-average intelligence. They are not social people, and they have restrictive and repetitive behaviors, according to Easter Seals Disability Services. Rett syndrome occurs most often in girls who seem normal until they are about 5 to 30 months old. They start to regress then, exhibiting repetitive, meaningless movements or gestures.

This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 1 in 150 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder by age 8 in the United States.

In Calhoun County and in Michigan schools, the number of children with autistic impairment has risen every year since 2001, according to the Michigan Compliance Information System. As of Dec. 1, there were 95 kids in school with autism in Calhoun County and 11,366 across Michigan.

"We're finding it milder and we're finding it earlier," Solomon said, explaining the steady increase.

There is no known cause of autism, although there are definite genetic and possibly environmental factors, he said.

He observed that kids with autism are often born to "smart people marrying smart people ... because the genes that code for mechanical thinking contribute to autism, which in some cases is an extreme expression of left-brain thinking," he said.

In the past, kids with mild cases of autism were probably labeled incorrigible, rambunctious or spoiled. Cyd Deane, whose 5-year-old son, B.J., was diagnosed with PDD-NOS less than a year ago, said it hurt when people told her that she was just a bad parent.

"I was in line once at the grocery store and a man asked me, 'Who spoils him?'" she wrote in an e-mail. "I've also had discouraging looks from people when he was screaming his head off with the look of 'Why don't you control your child?'"

B.J. was obsessed with dinosaurs, loved to line up objects and was a little slow to start speaking. Other than being shy among other children and acting out when he was upset, he seemed fine.

Since his parents figured out he wasn't being a bad kid, but that he had autism, they have gotten him the education he needs. He has been learning how to interact better with others.

"Autism is very treatable," Solomon said. "More than half the children do well if you engage them in an intensive program."

B.J. and his parents, Cyd and Ed Deane of Battle Creek, have used Solomon's PLAY Project. Some autism programs focus on drilling cognitive skills into kids through rewards and punishments. Solomon recommends, however, that parents "get down on the floor" and have fun with their kids where the kids are comfortable.

"The focus is on getting children to enjoy interacting with people," Solomon said. "When you do what the child loves, then the child will love being with you."

One of the keys to reversing the socially isolating effects of autism is to catch it early.

Most children are diagnosed at 18 months of age, some as early as 14 months, Solomon said.

Although B.J. was diagnosed a little late, it wasn't too late. Since he started therapy he's been able to sit through a swimming lesson instruction without bolting straight for the pool, for example.

"I feel very fortunate to have caught it early ... Had we not done anything, maybe he wouldn't be doing so great that he is doing now," Cyd Deane said.

The Lichtys said they also have come a long way with Kaleb to improve his social and language skills, but he will probably always seem "quirky" to others.

"He's always going to have those little idiosyncrasies," Kerri Lichty said. "But I think he's going to be fine."


Bev said...

I have a nephew with Aspergers and a good friend with a high functioning autistic son who is now 17. You have a great blog here with lots of information... I'm going to pass the link on to both of the moms...


BattleCreekDavid said...

I'm Kaleb's dad. It's now been three years since this article came out. Kaleb has developed a talent for singing. He still has the same behaviors listed in this article, but he does continue to improve.