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2013-03-28

Turn blue Tuesday for autism awareness

By Carolyn B. Edwards BCC Staff Writer

Fifteen years ago, Laura Contreras received what she believes is a "miracle." She and her husband became the proud parents of Eli, a son they had wanted and prayed for for a long time. But precious Eli came with challenges associated with autism.
Today, experts say one in 88 children suffer from some type of autism. Most of us, unless we have personal experience with someone who has the disorder, know very little about it. Contreras wants to begin changing that in Bandera County.
She is working to get local businesses and individuals to participate in Autism Speaks' "Light It Up Blue" (LIUB) program to raise autism awareness. "Margaret Paradee at the Gingerbread House will sell anyone a strip of blue ribbon to tie in front of their business," said Contreras. Busbee's Barbecue and the Dogleg Coffeehouse have already promised to participate and others are encouraged to join in.
LIUB Day is officially Tuesday, April 2, but the entire month of April is Autism Awareness Month.
Autism Speaks asks supporters to change out their lightbulbs to blue in support. The local True Value Hardware has blue bulbs in stock. Employees, students and teams can show their support by wearing blue clothing. Restaurants can print menus on blue paper. Businesses can donate a portion of their sales on April 2 to Autism Speaks. If you participate, take a picture and send it to Autism Speaks at www.LightIt UpBlue.org.
Last year, over 3,000 iconic buildings and landmarks in over 50 countries turned their lights blue in support of the program, including the Empire State Building.
"I always have a blue bulb at my back door," said Contreras. She wants to get the word out and hopes that participation will grow each year in Bandera County.
Eli attends Bandera High School where he participates in the Functional Living program. "He sorts the forks in the cafeteria and helps with the laundry in the athletics department," Contreras. Eli has not been verbal, but he has recently begun making sounds and saying words. He has also started jumping on the trampoline and riding his bicycle! "I see every day the milestones he is doing," she said.
He participates in the horse therapy program at Triple H Equitherapy in Pipe Creek and also receives physical and speech therapy. He likes music, especially rap, and enjoys touching different surfaces to experience various textures.
For Contreras, accepting the challenge of having a special needs child is just a part of day to day living. "It's just an every day thing that we have to deal with." She admits that there are times when the stress builds up. "I don't want to ever lose control with Eli," she said. That's where working as a team with her husband is so important. "I handle Eli when [my husband's] at work, and when he comes home, he takes over."
The autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a broad range of complex neurodevelopment disorders. "Every child with autism is different," explained Contreras. "That's why it's so hard to find the cause or a cure."
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, ASD is characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotypical patterns of behavior. Children with ASD may be unresponsive to people, fail to respond to their names and often avoid contact with other people. They have difficulty understanding social cues. Repetitive behaviors may include rocking, twirling, or self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.
Children with ASD may also have other conditions that co-occur with the disorder, such as Fragile X syndrome, seizures, Tourette syndrome, learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.
Recent studies are producing new findings, but scientists are not sure what causes ASD.
For many, symptoms improve with age, but victims usually continue to need services and support as they get older. Many, however, are able to work successfully and live independently or in supportive surroundings.
Sometimes people don't know how to respond when they are in the presence of a special needs person. Contreras says she just wants people to accept Eli as they would anyone else.
She takes as her guiding motto a quote from Kim Peek, the original inspiration for the main character in the movie Rain Man: "You don't have to be handicapped to be different. Everyone is different!"
In April, Eli will reach another important milestone in his life. He will be confirmed as a member of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. For Laura Contreras, it's just another one of many answered prayers.

On-line resources
Association for Science in Autism Treatment
http://www.asatonline.org

Autism Society of America
http://www.autism-society.org

Autism Speaks, Inc.
http://www autismspeaks.org

Pictured: Photo by Carolyn B. Edwards
Laura Contreras has accumulated a lot of resources about autism in order to understand and help her son, Eli. These are just a few of her favorites.