Autism cases on rise; cause still unknown

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 28, 2008

NATCHEZ — One in 150 children born are born with autism.

The number of diagnosed autistic children has been steadily on the rise, and yet medical science hasn’t agreed on a cause.

Many believe the disorder is environmentally driven, still others say it is genetic. Some say it is both.

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A neurological disorder, autism typically appears within the first three years of life. And it is more common in boys than in girls.

The autism spectrum includes Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified.

Though no exact number exists, statistically approximately 60 families in Adams County are affected by autism.

Maria Smilo, a speech language pathologist at Key Rehab, has worked with six autistic children recently in Natchez. Over the years, the number is far higher, she said.

Little or no verbal communication is a symptom of autism, she said.

But the other signs and symptoms can vary from a mild disorder to a severe one, Smilo said. And no two cases are alike.

For Connie Gamberi and family, the last eight years have been better than the first eight.

Tony Gamberi, 16, was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at age 5.

But Connie knew something was wrong with her son long before that.

“Early on he would bang his head on the floor,” she said. “He couldn’t stand clothes on him. He would just scream if we ran the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner.”

Tony was showing signs of sensitivity to sensory information, a symptom of several autism spectrum disorders.

And he didn’t talk until he was 10.

“He woke up one morning and said “I’m cold,’” Connie said. “He said, ‘Warm me up.’”

The sudden verbalization came right after a Baton Rouge neurologist started Tony on a combination of two medications — an antidepressant and a drug used to treat Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

“From then on he’s not hushed up,” Connie said.

Tony still attends special education classes and struggles with some of his symptoms, but the Gamberis are hopeful he may one day live on his own.

Speech and occupational therapy five days a week for years has been a major contributor to the change in Tony, his mother said.

Gamberi believes her son’s disorder was triggered by a vaccination.

“We’ve had genetic testing done at Tulane Medical Center, and they found nothing,” she said.

“He had the (measles, mumps and rubella) shot, and it was a couple of days later, when he was 18 months old, that he started going backward.”

Before the vaccination, Tony was speaking, she said.

“I firmly believe that it has something to do with some of the vaccines.”

But that’s only her opinion, Gamberi said. The facts are unknown.

Susannah Heatherly, mother of two autistic boys, has a hard time believing vaccinations could be fully to blame.

After her first child was diagnosed with autism, she changed the vaccination schedule for her next two children. Yet, the youngest boy still has autism.

“It’s got to be a combination of genetics and environmental factors at the same time,” she said.