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Overcoming autism

SOUTH POINT — Chelsea Garred was about 2 when those around her started worrying about her.

“Some of my family thought she couldn’t hear, but I knew she could,” Chelsea’s mother, Debbie Garred, recalled. “Going to the doctor, I looked at the growth chart and saw a decline in the milestones of development.”

Initial testing led Garred and her husband, Joe, to take their daughter to doctors in Huntington, W.Va. There they learned the unimaginable news that their daughter was autistic.

“I was devastated. I was depressed,” Debbie said. “That there was something wrong with MY daughter.”

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that can happen at birth or between birth and around 3 years of age, according to the Autism Research Institute. The ARI is a San Diego-based non-profit organization founded in the 1960s by Dr. Bernard Rimland, who was also the technical advisor to the movie, “Rain Man.”

“Most autistic children are perfectly normal in appearance, but spend their time engaged in puzzling and disturbing behaviors,” according to ARI.

Autism used to be a disorder that parents believed was simply to be accepted with little hope for any help for the child, the ARI Web site states. Now treatment and intervention options are increasing.

What is also increasing are the number of cases of autism. Before the early 1990s, the statistic was five per 10,000 children. Today, the rate has increased to 60 per 10,000 with boys outnumbering girls four to one.

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control say that cases numbered one in 150 children.

It was learning all she could about the disorder that enabled Garred not only to cope with the diagnosis of her child, but also to become a resource for others. And it is a role she continues to pursue to this day.

“It is a lifelong neurological disorder that can affect their social skills, communication skills, behavior, speech, everyday things most take for granted,” she said. “There is no known cause, no known cure.

“I threw myself into workshops, conferences, everything I could find to read,” she said. “At first you are like a sponge to better help your situation. I am still learning.”

Garred also reached out to other parents who were going through the same situation as she and her husband were. That increased her resources and has allowed her to help others as well.

“We talk and communicate,” she said. “If I learn something I share. I have a big mouth.”

Garred also has invited professionals from other areas to come to South Point to increase families’ understanding of autism and how to educate the autistic child. That includes educators from Ponderosa Elementary School in Boyd County, Ky., where there is a special teaching unit for autistic children.

“I used to hire those ladies to do a workshop,” she said. “It was free for anybody to come. We had teachers come from Portsmouth. There were more people who came from surrounding areas than from our own areas.”

It is by living with her child daily that Garred has developed an acute appreciation for the gifts that the autistic child can have.

“You look at her you wouldn’t know anything. They are trapped in their little minds,” she said. “Her gift that God gave my baby girl is music. She can sing all the words of the songs she hears. She can hear music one time and then pick it out on our piano. She can’t communicate her wants and needs with her speech.”

Just as acutely is Garred’s understanding of the pain an autistic child and his or her family may face.

“You can be in Wal-Mart and someone might say they would make those kids mind when they don’t understand our kids have a disability and that they may be acting out,” she said.

It is an understanding that has turned Garred into an impassioned activist for Chelsea, now 13.

“They can go to school like everyone else’s kids. She can learn. She learns differently,” Garred said. “God gave us her for a reason. I am very much an advocate for my child. I am ready to scream to the heavens.”