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Center on UCF Campus Helps Locals Cope With Growing Number of Autism Cases

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By Zenaida Gonzalez Kotola

When Victor Colon found out his daughter had autism, he went into shock. He thought his life and worse -- hers -- was over. Then he called the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of Central Florida.

The Orlando center, one of seven in the state, acts as a local resource for family members of children and adults diagnosed with the disease.

"They helped open up the spectrum of possibilities for my daughter," Colon said. "It made a world of difference. Let's put it this way: When they tell you that your child has an incurable disease, the skies get really gray. CARD helped clear the skies."

Scientists aren't sure what causes the condition, which blocks the development of speaking skills in some children. Other children mimic every word or sequence of numbers they hear. Symptoms also include no direct eye contact and emotional outbursts.

"It's becoming more and more common," said Chad Nye, executive director for CARD and a professor at UCF. "About one in 166 people are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in the United States. We don't know exactly what causes it, but we believe it may have something to do with chemical imbalances and structural differences in the brain."

CARD at UCF serves more than 2,700 people in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties. The seven other centers in Florida serve about 12,000 people altogether.

While CARD services are free, the child or adult must already be diagnosed with autism or a related condition before the agency can help. CARD staff members work with families, initially by phone and then with a home visit, to evaluate their needs and help ensure that they are met.

The state agency serves as a clearing house of sorts. It provides information to parents and those who care for people with autism and offers workshops on a variety of topics, including how to deal with the behavior and estate planning. Clients are also referred to federal, state and local agencies that can help with education and transportation needs.

CARD also offers a library of materials, including resource books, training manuals and videos of workshops, that people can borrow.

Colon and his family attended CARD workshops that he said gave his family the skills necessary to help their daughter with everything from potty training to emotional outbursts. The CARD case worker also attended a few meetings with teachers and specialists at Harbor Ridge Elementary, which Colon's daughter attends.

"They helped me understand and helped me with the worst - the anxiety of not knowing how to fix it or how to deal with it," said Colon, who found the transition difficult given that his older son is in a gifted program at a local high school.

Because of funding issues, the center has not been able to keep pace with the demand for its services, Nye said. However, this year CARD expects a $1.12 million budget, which is much higher than the $760,000 it has received each of the past five years.

"We hope to hire several new staff members this year," Nye said. "I think it's money well spent to help the community."

Famous people who have spoken out about autism include retired Major League Baseball player Will Clark and Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino, a retired Miami Dolphin. Clark and Marino have sons who have been diagnosed with the condition.

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