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Vilseck mother Jennifer Cranfield walks with her son Bradley, 4, who has autistim, a condition that affects an estimated one in 150 children.

Vilseck mother Jennifer Cranfield walks with her son Bradley, 4, who has autistim, a condition that affects an estimated one in 150 children. (Seth Robson / S&S)

VILSECK, Germany

People are quick to blame the parents when they see a child out of control, screaming loudly and rocking back and forth at the post exchange.

“Smack him in the mouth” and “She’s a bad mother” were some of the comments Jennifer Cranfield said she heard during a recent meltdown involving her 4-year-old son, Bradley, at the Vilseck PX.

What the onlookers didn’t know was that Bradley is one of an estimated 40 children in the Grafenwöhr/Vilseck community with autism — a condition that often manifests itself in extremes of public behavior.

“When we go to the PX and there are fluorescent lights and crowds, Bradley has a meltdown,” Cranfield said. “He rocks back and forth screaming, crying. It makes it look like he is throwing a fit.”

The young mother, whose husband, Spc. John Cranfield, is serving with the 2nd Cavalry (Stryker) Regiment in Iraq, went public with her concerns last month in an effort to raise community awareness about autism.

According to Vilseck pediatrician Dr. Renata Lukezic, about one child in 150 is autistic.

“We used to estimate one in 500. The reason we think the incidence is going up is that people are more aware of it,” she said.

Lukezic said she sees 20 to 30 autistic children at her on-post clinic but estimates there are probably 40 autistic kids in the Grafenwöhr/Vilseck community.

According to the Centers for Disease Control Web site (www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism), autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities defined by significant impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests.

“Many people with ASDs also have unusual ways of learning, paying attention, or reacting to different sensations. The thinking and learning abilities of people with ASDs can vary — from gifted to severely challenged. ASD begins before age 3 and lasts throughout a person’s life. It occurs in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups and is four times more likely to occur in boys than girls,” the Web site states.

Autistic children need special help with behavior and the earlier they get it the better, Lukezic added.

Bradley’s autism was not diagnosed until recently. Cranfield said her son was still not talking at age 3 and would not sit in her lap or hug his mother.

“He does a lot of arm flapping,” she said. “When I’m talking to him, I have to grab his face and make him look at me or use sign language to show him no means no, or this is hot. He doesn’t make eye contact with anybody.

“But he’s a beautiful, happy-go-lucky child. He just doesn’t understand our world. Lights bother him and clothing. When he comes home from school he gets into his birthday suit because he doesn’t like the way clothing feels.”

Bradley has low-functioning autism, which means a lot of speech therapy and occupational therapy are required to get him used to being with other people.

“He needs a lot of understanding from the community,” Cranfield said. “Part of the healing process is taking him to the PX and getting him used to that situation.”

Changes to the daily schedule upset Bradley. The family has drawn a daily plan with pictures of things like brushing teeth and eating lunch to keep things on track.

“Since Daddy left he has regressed,” she said. “He went backward in potty training, speech and social development. But we are working on it and he is doing pretty good now.”

Lukezic said the Army screens for autism and other problems using developmental questionnaires that parents should fill out for the first time when their child is 4 months old.

If a child does not score where he or she should on the questionnaire, the family is put in touch with Educational Developmental and Intervention Services, she said.

EDIS is a team of professionals that gives speech, occupational and physical therapy to children in their homes, she said.

“The key is to start therapy right away. You can pick up symptoms as early as age 1,” Lukezic said. “If you give these kids the right therapy they can go off to kindergarten with no problems.”

DODDS offering 3-night class on working with autistic kids

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Department of Defense Dependents Schools is offering a three-night course on Autism Spectrum Disorders for the Vilseck and Grafenwöhr communities.

The course, open to families and community service providers, will be at the Vilseck Elementary School New Annex Building.

The first session, which covers traits of ASD and current research and practical teaching techniques, will be from 4:40 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The second session, on ASD from the learner’s perspective and how to serve students with more involved needs, will be from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The final session, on behavioral interventions and social skills training, will be from 4:30 pm. to 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 30.

According to DODDS, sessions are aimed at general education teachers and community service providers for children with ASD, but all are welcome to attend.

The goal of the training is to provide hands-on strategies and a greater knowledge for those serving children with ASD.

While walk-ins are welcome, those planning to attend are asked to e-mail Chuck York of the special education student services branch of DODDS-Europe at Chuck.York@eu.dodea.edu to let him know which sessions they will be attending.

Warning signs

Children and adults with an autism spectrum disorder might:

Have trouble relating to others or no interest in other people at allAvoid eye contact and want to be aloneHave trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelingsPrefer not to be held or cuddled, or cuddle only when they want toAppear to be unaware when other people talk to them but respond to other soundsBe very interested in people, but not know how to talk to, play with or relate to themRepeat or echo words or phrases said to them, or repeat words or phrases in place of normal language (echolalia)Have trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motionsRepeat actions over and over againHave trouble adapting to changes in routineHave unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or soundLose skills they once had (for instance, stop saying words they were once using)Not play “pretend” games (pretend to feed a doll, for example)Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over, for example)Not look at objects when another person points at themSource: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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