Often symbolized by a puzzle piece, autism and those who fall within the autistic spectrum don't often fit into neat categories.
Ann Helton, M.S., L.P.C, L.A.D.C, DOT SAP and Sable Davis, intern and student attending Southern Nazarene University in Psychology, Family Studies and Geneaology, of Chuska Consulting, a private practice counseling service in Chickasha, has registered a team to participate in the annual Piece Walk for Autism. This event and fundraiser supports families and individuals affected by autism. 100 percent of the Piece Walk funds are used in parent support groups, outreach programs and summer camps.
Helton's granddaughter, 10-year-old Gracie, kicked off the team's fundraiser with a $1 donation.
One out of 88 children are affected by autism, Helton said. Helton and Davis both have experience in counseling autistic clients and their caregivers.
Much about autism, Helton said, is still understood, especially related to social and intellectual capacity.
"There is a misconception that if a child can shake your hand, they don't have autism," Helton said.
Last November, Helton and Davis attended the Oklahoma Statewide Autism Conference where Dr. Temple Grandin, PhD, author and professor of animal science at Colorado State University was the keynote speaker.
Helton and Davis said that, for them, going to see Grandin speak was more exciting than seeing a celebrity.
Grandin was responsible for coming up with a method to herd cattle for slaughter that is less stressful for the cattle. The method used cattle's tendency to mill rather than walk in a straight line. Grandin was born in the 1940s and raised when autism was less understood. Grandin's parents raised her with the expectation that she would do what non-autistic kids did.
Those with autism face a plethora of challenges within the social and at school.
Because those with autism tend to not make eye contact, they may come across as not caring and they often miss nonverbal cues. Because they tend to not be emotional when they communicate and not pick up on emotional verbal cues, speaking in a matter-of-fact tone may incur a better response than an emotional one, Davis said.
They also have trouble with verbal cues and tend to take things very literally.
"If you tell an autistic child that it's raining cats and dogs, they will go looking for cats and dogs outside," Helton said.
Helton said if there is one thing she would like teachers and parents to understand, it's that autism is often misdiagnosed as oppositional defiant disorder.
Part of the reason for this is that autistic children have trouble transitioning. They feel they must complete a task, Helton said.
For example, if a child is doing a math lesson in class, but does not finish before having to transition to another subject, the child is still doing math in his head, Helton said.
The autistic child may also gravitate towards one topic or hobby that becomes almost an obsession. They will want to know all there is to know about that thing.
Characters with autism and who fall within the autistic spectrum are seen more in popular culture.
Helton and Davis citied Shelton off of "Big Bang Theory" and Max from "Parenthood" as examples. While Shelton's character is overtly stated as having autism, he displays behaviors consistent with someone who may fall within the spectrum.
For example, he cannot have french toast on oatmeal day, even when it is made for him and he agrees that it looks appealing. He throw it in the trash and as he does so notes that it's "too bad it's oatmeal day."
It is openly known that Max's character has Aspergers Syndrome, which is an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. He has a "radius" within the house that he follows and must ask his parents before he deviates from that radius. Even when an aunt assures Max that it is okay, Max insists that he must ask his parent's permission first. Max is also good with photography, he just doesn't understand why it's inappropriate to take pictures of girls crying.
"They may have autism, but they are more than just autism," Helton said. "It doesn't mean they aren't intelligent."
"I think we all have some characteristics," Helton said. For example, most people engage in self-soothing activities such as fidgeting and many people become interested in one topic.
Those with autism are highly sensitive to sensory stimulation. The buzz in a light–or the sudden absence of it–can cause a major disruption. Food texture or strong smells can cause a meltdown.
If things do not stay in a pattern, those with autism can become very upset. This high need for control, Helton said, is not a choice and it is very uncomfortable.
What is problematic for the autistic child as well as his caregiver, is that the child cannot express what is bothering him. Sometimes, in the midst of a meltdown, the child does not want human contact and may find any attempts to communicate with him upsetting.
"I think autism has been so misunderstood," Helton said, who added that those with autism often have unique personalities. "If we could just celebrate that."
The Chuska team will consist of Davis and Helton as well as members of Helton's family: Jim Kunze, Thomas Tower, Val Tower, Caitlyn Tower, Lathan Springer, Jeanna Hembree, Trevor Erhardt and Marcella Erhardt.
The Piece Walk and 5K", brought to you by Autism Oklahoma takes place on May 3 at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City. Gates open at 7:30 a.m. and the walk begins at 8:30 a.m. The 5k starts at 9 a.m. Closing ceremonies are at 10:30 a.m. This is the largest autism fundraiser in the state according to Autism Oklahoma. A total of $27,662 has been raised at the time of this report.
To donate call Ann Helton at 405.381.3204 or Sable Davis at 918.315.5620. Cash or check donations are accepted. Checks should be made payable to Autism Oklahoma. Donations can also be made on line at www.piecewalk.org/donate.aspx. All donations must be received by April 1, 2014.