Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nobody gives you a manual: Experimentation key as Destin family grapples with autism

By Jennifer Rich, Destin Log

When little Skylar Watson gets off of the school bus at her Indian Bayou home in the afternoon, she does what many six-year-olds do.

She gets a snack, plays in the back yard, watches Hannah Montana or plays with her special friend, Karen.

It has taken more than a year to reach this seemingly normal routine, since parents Ray and Tina Watson received the news early last year — news that Skylar has autism.

“It’s a lot of extra work,” Tina said. “It’s a whole lot of things that you can’t really imagine until you live through it.”

Autism is a brain development disorder that impairs social interaction and communication skills, and is characterized by repetitive behavior. Symptoms can be mild to severe, making it a spectrum disorder that one in 150 children are diagnosed with.

The diagnosis sounds gloomy, but the Watsons have mastered the old cliché of turning lemons into lemonade. Skylar’s autism has taught the family how to embrace healthy living.

“As a baby, she was a normal thriving infant,” Tina said, as she shuffled through Skylar’s baby photos.

Before the age of two, the couple noticed that Skylar did not seem to be processing what was said to her. They realized that the “terrible twos” were something more when Skylar was not expressing pain or fear, and her younger brother Kruz, now 5, began transcending her in development.

“She didn’t engage in toys,” Tina said. “She would just throw them.”

Skylar was 16-months-old when Ray and Tina really suspected something was not right. It occurred one afternoon when Skylar was not cooperating well with gym play at U.S. Gold Gymnastics and Cheerleading.

The pair began researching Skylar’s behavior and taking her to see doctors. It was still early for an autism diagnosis at the time, but their suspicions were confirmed just over a year ago.

As Ray and Tina have educated themselves about their daughter’s disorder, they have adopted the ideals of the DAN project, a protocol to “Defeat Autism Now” through biomedical factors.

DAN doctors preach that an autistic child’s environment plays a key role in how well he or she copes with the disorder.

The Watson’s have taken the beliefs to heart.

Ray has ripped out almost all of the carpet from their home, and furniture is mostly leather to rid the home of allergens. Tina ensures that

Skylar’s diet is completely organic and free of gluten and casein (wheat and dairy products), another tactic for coping with autism.

Skylar has also been receiving ABA, or applied behavioral analysis, sessions with a board certified behavior analyst, Karen Reid, three days a week since January.

“We work on language skills, potty training, behavioral difficulties and attention,” Karen said.

Karen uses toys called “reinforcements” and flash cards to help Skylar learn basic principles of speech and counting.

“They (behavior analysts) have the patience of saints,” said Myra Fowler, president of the Emerald Coast Autism Society. Fowler immersed herself in autism when her son was diagnosed and has since become acquainted with the Watsons through her organization that is hosting the Walk 4 Autism Awareness on Saturday in Niceville.

Much controversy exists on what causes autism. Many believe the cause is genetic and others say environmental factors play a role. The proper treatments get just as much scrutiny, but the Watsons have found that experimenting is necessary to find out what works.

“Nobody really knows the cause, and nobody really knows the cure,” Myra said.

Ray and Tina credit hyperbaric chamber treatments, where pressure is increased in an attempt to boost the amount of oxygen in the child’s brain, for the most dramatic change in Skylar’s progress.

The couple splurged on a Vitaeris 320 hyperbaric chamber that came with the whopping price tag of $23,000, but the couple said “we have seen a return on Skylar.”

They made the investment in January 2008 after making monthly trips to Miracle Mountain, a hyperbaric treatment facility in North Carolina. Ray said that treatments in a hyperbaric chamber can cost $300 an hour. They now do them at home for a fraction of the cost.

“It’s no miracle pill,” Tina said, stressing that early detection is the key.

However, her enthusiasm for the chamber’s effects is undeniable.

Tina said they are blessed to have the hyperbaric chamber, Karen and the support of other parents of autistic children.

“Nobody gives you a manual,” Fowler said.


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