As autism cases rise, Va programs offer support

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HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) — Alisha Cagle knew something wasn't right when her son, Brasen Mishio, was approaching his second birthday without saying more than a few words.

He flapped his hands often and had frequent meltdowns that left him lying on the floor, screaming and crying.

Cagle started researching potential medical ailments and came up with an answer that wasn't easy to digest.

"You have the gut feeling, but it doesn't really hit you until you get the diagnosis," she said. "(Then) it really hits you like a ton of bricks."

Brasen, 5, was diagnosed with classic autism and sensory integration disorder in November of 2009. Almost two years later, his brother, Aiden Mishio, 7, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, high functioning.

She started Brasen on a gluten and casein free diet. In less than a month, his behavior improved and the number of meltdowns declined dramatically. And with the help of therapy, he started to talk more, eventually being able to hold regular conversations.

"After . years of speech therapy, ask the therapist for ear plugs," Cagle said with a laugh as she picked up her two sons' toys while they ran through their Spiderman and Thomas the Tank-themed bedroom.

Brasen and Aiden are part of a national trend — a report released recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder increased 78 percent between 2002 and 2008.

The agency now predicts that 1 out of every 88 children has the condition. Cagle thinks the actual number of affected children is higher.

"There are a lot of people out there who have a child with autism, and they're not willing to have them diagnosed," she said.

Karen McCormick, the parent co-chair of the Shenandoah Valley Autism Partnership, a support group Cagle recently joined, has seen evidence of the trend up close.

"There's been a huge increase (of autism diagnoses) in the Valley," McCormick said, adding that she doesn't believe it's strictly due to better detection.

"We really don't know why it's increasing at such an alarming rate," she said.

Cagle encourages parents to have their children checked for the condition if they have any reason to believe they might have it, and especially if a sibling has already been diagnosed. The central Valley has numerous programs parents of autistic children can take advantage of to help both them and their kids. In fact, the number of resources in the region is exactly why Cagle moved her family from North Carolina to Harrisonburg a year ago.

Brasen has been going to the Matthew's Center in the city for 24 hours each month for Applied Behavior Analysis. Cagle is also looking into getting her sons involved with James Madison University's Overcoming Barriers mentoring program and the university's Precious Time, a pediatric respite care program.

"In Virginia, when it comes to raising a child with autism, it's a lot easier," she said in comparing it to North Carolina.

Still, she pointed out certain difficulties that many parents of autistic children face regardless of location.

Since Aiden was recently diagnosed and hasn't received many test results yet, his school has turned down Cagle's request for an individual education plan, which could place him in special needs classes.

But Cagle is taking each day at a time, reveling in the small moments.

"If you have a child who's not very cuddly," she said, "and you have a moment where he will jump in your arms and hug you, take it."

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Information from: Daily News-Record, http://www.dnronline.com

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