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Autism awareness rises as diagnoses increase

Ten-year-old Matt Deppe began life as a happy, healthy baby. He was cruising toward toddlerhood when his development came to an unexpected standstill.

"Matt was perfectly fine," said his mom, Cheryl Deppe. "He was speaking and playing normally. His doctors said he was hitting every developmental milestone right on time."

Then when Matt was about one-and-a-half, Cheryl noticed that over the next few months he gradually stopped speaking.

Cheryl said there was no warning or indication that anything was amiss with her youngest of three children until his speech began to decrease.

After many doctor visits and much frustration, psychologists at the Wisconsin Early Autism Project in Madison diagnosed Matt with autism at age three.

Matt's official diagnosis is Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDDNOS).

"It's basically autism," Cheryl said, "low-functioning autism. Physically he's pretty high functioning, but school concepts don't make sense to him."

It took two years of up to six hours of therapy a day before Matt spoke again at age 5, Cheryl said.

Matt could read before he could speak and preferred that method of communication while other kids his age were just learning to read. Verbal communication frustrated Matt as a young child.

"We had to write down schedules before so Matt would understand what was going on, but now he gets it verbally, Cheryl explained. "Before, writing things down was a way of understanding for Matt."

Cheryl explained that Matt could read at barely four years of age because for him reading just came naturally.

"It's called hyperlexia," Cheryl said. "Matt can read really well and does well on the computer even though he doesn't have good small motor skills. He is also very good on the keyboard and loves music."

When Matt goes anywhere in the car, he reads all the road signs, his mom said. Consequently, Matt remembers how to get anywhere he's ever been.

"We went to Ladysmith for my son Joel's basketball game," Cheryl said. "Matt knows every sign on the way there and back. He could tell me how to get back to the school where the game was if I asked him."

A difficult disease

"The problem with autism is that everyone is so different," Cheryl said. "Matt is different from a highly functioning kid -- they each have unique strengths and weaknesses. For example, some kids are cuddly while others shy away from touch."

There is no "norm" for autistics, so it is difficult to diagnose and treat the disease.

For Matt the disorder brings a very pleasant personality as long as things are going well in his world. He can even tease once in awhile, according to his mom. Matt is also very visual.

Currently, St. Croix County Child and Family Services has 47 children under the age of 18 on their case load.

According to Debbie Willink, certified social worker with Youth and Community Support Services of St. Croix County, there are 19 autistic children on the waiting list for county services.

"These numbers are not all inclusive," Willink cautioned. "There are many other autistic children out there who either have parents who have not applied for services or simply don't need public assistance."

Ron Lockwood, St. Croix County Long Term Support coordinator, said the "increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism in the last few years has people scrambling to keep up with their care."

Clearly diagnoses of autism are on the rise and the health care system is hard pressed to meet the needs of autistic children at this point in time.

Matt's world

Today Matt's daily activities are pretty much the same as most other 10 year olds.

The difference is, Matt doesn't experience those activities in the same way.

Matt loves racing cars on the computer, playing video games and watching DVDs, like most kids. But Matt will play "the same section" of a DVD or game over and over every day, according to Cheryl.

"Weird stuff interests him," Cheryl said with a laugh. "He goes on the computer to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation site, looks up highway maps and studies them."

Yet, like most boys his age, Matt knows what he likes -- swimming, jumping on the trampoline, eating pizza and snack cakes and drinking lots of chocolate milk. And he likes routine.

Matt counts on routine and when things don't go as expected, he becomes upset. He may hit himself or strike out at others. Sometimes he will pull up his shirt and chew on it out of frustration.

"It's hard sometimes to know that Matt's reaction to things he can't handle includes hitting others," Cheryl said, "because he is such a nice, affectionate boy.

"Matt seems to have more self-control now," Cheryl said. "He has good teachers and aides at West Elementary School and he seems to verbally understand more now too."

Even though Matt can't really converse, he is happy, Cheryl said.

"He'd turn away if someone spoke to him," she said. "I don't know why he has no social skills although the teachers and our family has worked on that a lot with him."

Cheryl has been a single mother of three since Matt was very young. She said it has been difficult at times to provide the attention needed to all of her children, especially when Matt requires so much extra attention.

"He's very quick," Cheryl said, "and he wanders off. He has to have someone with him at all times."

For this reason Cheryl works from home to support her family. She sews drapes for designers.

"Not being able to take my eyes off him is the hardest thing," Cheryl said. "Now that Matt is in school it is easier to work, but I work more hours than he is in school so I still have to watch him every second he is home."

Since college is not in Matt's future, that means his mom will be responsible for his care for the rest of his life. It's a responsibility she welcomes, but also worries about to some degree.

"I'll always have him," Cheryl said. "I have no idea what it will be like when he is grown."

Cheryl does not even want to consider the thought of Matt living anywhere but with her when he is grown, but she knows it is something she may have to address later.

Horse therapy

One of Matt's joys is riding horses. Matt rides a horse named Cowboy at a therapeutic program called Walk On near River Falls. Cheryl said she expects him to ride in the Pierce County Fair this year.

Matt enjoys riding Cowboy and it helps give him a sense of accomplishment.

"Whatever any of my kids are good at, I encourage them to do," Cheryl said. "Matt is no different."

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