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With autism diagnoses rising, a cause is sought
Brett Stallworth, 3, who was diagnosed with autism, smiles Thursday at speech therapist Jennifer Zonts during therapy at Challenged Child and Friends. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

When twins Brett and Blake Stallworth were just 12 months old, their parents began to notice that something wasn’t quite right.

“Our daughter was walking at 9 months and talking at 11 months. We could hold full conversations with her when she was a year and a half, but that wasn’t happening with the boys,” said Don Stallworth, Brett and Blake’s father.

“We started questioning things when they were a year old — my wife, Lynn, really started picking up on things — but the pediatrician kept saying that they were fine and that it just takes some kids longer to develop than others.”

By the time the twins were 1« years old, the Stallworths got a referral to a specialist who diagnosed the boys with an autism spectrum disorder.

An autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disability that can “cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges,” according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The Stallworths’ story is becoming more commonplace. According to a recent study released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 in 91 American children between the ages of 3 to 17 have an ASD. According to the study, the figures are higher than previous estimates. Prior to the latest findings, it was thought that 1 in 150 children had an autism disorder, CDC officials report.

The CDC has acknowledged that austim disorders “are conditions of urgent public health concern and these data affirm that a concerted and substantial national response is warranted.”

“We will continue to research potential risk factors associated with ASDs and will continue our work in surveillance so that we can understand trends in ASD rates over time,” CDC officials said in a prepared statement. “We hope that these new data might raise awareness about ASDs to help improve early identification and intervention and to provide information for police and service planning.”

Austim can affect each person differently; symptoms range from mild to severe. According to the CDC, some patients show symptoms as an infant, but others may not until they are 2 years old or older.

In some cases, children follow expected development patterns until they are around 18 or 24 months old, then either stop gaining new skills or lose the ones they have already developed.

“I’ve noticed that more (of our students) are being identified and diagnosed earlier with an ASD,” said Jennifer Zonts, a speech therapist at Challenged Child and Friends in Gainesville.

At the school, Zonts works with students to help develop their verbal communication skills. Many patients with autism disorders have problems talking and holding meaningful conversations.

There isn’t one concrete cause linked to autism, but additional research may provide more answers.

“I’m really frustrated with the CDC because I think the only reason they are getting involved now is because they have no choice; there are too many cases to ignore,” Stallworth said. “I think they should’ve been involved all along.”

CDC officials report several potential environmental, biological and genetic factors that can cause autism disorders. Many families and care providers in the ASD community argue that the disorders are linked to childhood vaccinations, a claim being investigated by researchers.

“There has to be something to this,” Stallworth said. “It seems like (some medical professionals) refuse to admit that there are poisons in vaccines. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but there has to be something to that. The (twins) seemed perfectly fine until they started getting all of those shots.”