The first Many Faces of Autism Awareness family event is scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on April 1 at Riverview Park.

Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series on Autism written by MNR’s associate editor Melinda Stotts. Part two in Tuesday's edition of the MNR is about the Kirk family's story sharing their experiences with Autism.

MIAMI – Colorful puzzle pieces are used as the symbol for autism awareness. Those with autism are often described as beautiful enigmas, both bewildering and astonishing.

April has been chosen nationally as Autism Awareness Month, the month to focus on raising awareness to spread acceptance, understanding, love and support for autistic children, adults and their families.

Miami INTEGRIS Hospital’s Pediatrician Dr. Alan Carnahan, himself the father of an autistic child, has long been a proponent and educator and lent support to families dealing with the diagnosis of autism.

“To me, each person has their own uniqueness and these kids can kind of stick out like a sore thumb -they like to dress different, some have texture issues. They won’t wear certain types of clothing or like certain types of foods, and we all just have our preferences, but these kids if they’re not supported and understood, they are going to be the ones picked on in school, bullied and perhaps are going to be isolated. That’s really sad to me,” Carnahan said. “I was bullied when I was a kid. I was tall, I was skinny and not very coordinated, curly hair, braces, glasses – so I wasn’t cool. So, I can relate to that, but if we can help them see the uniqueness and the gifts they have, then they can learn where they fit.”

Carnahan and other parents are asking the public to save the date to attend a special upcoming event.

“We will be having a special event out at Riverside Park, April 1st. We've had an autism group over the last many years at the hospital called the Many Faces of Autism,” Carnahan said. “One of the father's that comes, Bryan Kirk, was very interested in helping us kick something off and we may try to make this an annual event to spread autism awareness. We've been wanting to do this and Bryan has helped to get it organized this year.”

The first Many Faces of Autism Awareness family event is scheduled from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on April 1 at Riverview Park.

Kirk, a Flight Paramedic at Midwest AeroCare I, has arranged to have a helicopter fly into the park during the event

“We'll have a fire truck out there so the kids can look inside the helicopter and the fire truck. The group he works for is also going to be grilling hamburgers. We'll have face painting and probably set up some little games for the kids, ” Carnahan said. “We'll have a lot of information there. At the meeting each month we have information for the families that have kids with autism. We just want to spread awareness of autism and the support group. A lot of the families from our group will be there.”

Autism is defined as covering a wide range of developmental disorders. Some children are only mildly impaired while others have more severe disabilities. While autistic people share certain difficulties, their condition will affect them in different ways.

The Many Faces of Autism group meets the first Thursday of every month from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Cafeteria at Miami INTEGRIS Hospital. The hospital has provided food for the families attending for the last 10 years.

“It's for anybody in the four states that has a child with autism, or we've even had teachers come. It's great fellowship for the families and I put out the information from the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Carnahan said. “We have been a support for families because my middle son also has Autism. He's now 20. We had a group in Oregon when we lived there for five years we really appreciated, so that's why we wanted to start one here.”

According to the Center for Disease Control around one in 65 children has been identified with a form of autism.

Support and information are helpful and offered at the Many Faces of Autism group meetings.

“We'll have a small meal and the kids can play board games or video games, or whatever, and then the parents are able to visit,” Carnahan said. “Sometimes we've had speakers come. I've shared kind of a medical talk on autism, and we had a speech therapist come once. Next month we're going to have a lady from the college who works with vocational rehab that helps young people with autism get jobs or to start college.”

Carnahan said better diagnostic criteria and awareness has made proper and earlier diagnosis more prevalent nowadays.

“Over the last five years it was said to be one in 165, now it's a one in 65 statistic as far as someone who is on the spectrum. Of course, autism is not just a one-diagnosis fits all, there's kids with mild autism to more severe. And so I see families with autism at least two every week, sometimes more, and it seems like a new diagnosis at least once every couple of weeks. So, people are more aware.”

The Miami pediatrician dispelled common myths about Autistic children.

“It's the socialization. The average kid with autism, that's one thing that people don't know, is that they assume a child with autism is mentally retarded, with a low IQ. Most children with Autism are at least average to high IQ, they just don't have I guess, the built-in social sense to know how to small talk or not talk over a friend, and they're kind of isolated because of that a lot of times,” Carnahan said. “So, we try to find them early now. We screen at 18 months and two-years-old for autism routinely with questionnaires that families do when they come in for their check-ups.”

The doctor gave signs to look for to help identify autism in young children for early interventions.

“If they don't share what they're looking at or something they are excited about, if they don't point and share that with their parents that's a big sign of the possibility of autism,” Carnahan said. “Another thing would be if they're not speaking in two-word sentences by two, or if they did talk that way and they lost that skill somewhere between their first and second birthday, then that's also a concern.

"So they (don't) have the language, socialization and then they'll often even show some either talking like an older person, or real hyper talking about certain things, and they will also have an interest in certain activities. Like some kids are specialists, you know, they know every dinosaur and specifics about that. They will have gifts that make them really stick out, but then they're not able to talk to their peers in school on that same level."

Another sign is autistic children also may have higher pain thresholds.

“Sometimes they will be a quiet child, but there's others that will be real outgoing and even a behavior problem,” Carnahan said. “In helping the parent know how to approach the child, and of course as early as possible for school figuring out what the issue is because there are a lot of things that trigger emotional problems with the child. So they'll not like loud noises, or they'll not like changes in schedule – they're very regimented in liking the same thing every day.”

These different symptoms or signs of autism, once identified, can then be addressed to help the child, according to Carnahan. He said if a child receives early intervention they could gain coping and even more social skills. He said autistic children and teens are generally good in vo-tech classes, are computer savvy, and tend to do well in repetitive jobs or careers for instance.

“What I see is if they are diagnosed early you can kind of start on the socialization some, and help them with the triggers of their emotions,” he said. “ We’ve had many, many families, probably 50 families, we’ve helped over the past 10 years. Some of those kids enjoy it so much, being able to be themselves, and at the group they can. It’s just helping them to find out who they are and to be their best and it’s the way I see a support system should be to help that child.”

For more information parents and others are welcome to attend the Many Faces of Autism event or contact Dr. Carnahan at his office at (918) 540-7753.