Home News Local News Autism Society helps children on the spectrum be active in their society

Autism Society helps children on the spectrum be active in their society

The New Mexico Autism Society works with families who have autistic members, to help them better integrate their loved one into society and improve the quality of their life. Divina Villaraza is shown here making bubbles with her daughter Liana who is on the spectrum. (Submitted Photo)

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Krista Smith is Roswell’s representative for the New Mexico Autism Society.

“The society has been in Roswell about seven years,” she said. “I first became involved about five years ago when my son was diagnosed. There was another board member at the time, she’s moved out of state, but we’ve tried to continue. The New Mexico Autism Society has been around for many years, but it’s really flourished over the last seven years.”

As science has learned more about autism, a greater understanding of its symptoms and indicators is arising.

“Right now it’s estimated that one in 68 individuals and one in 45 boys are diagnosed with autism,” Smith said. “We try not to look at it as a bad thing because it’s really not. It’s just a different way of individuals processing things. It affects a lot of social skills and language skills, so there are many who are non-verbal, yet there are others who will talk non-stop. A lot of them have social deficits.”

Smith said it’s important for anyone exhibiting symptoms to get tested early.

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“A good thing about getting a diagnosis is you are able to get a lot of therapies that you normally could not qualify for,” she said. “The earlier a person is diagnosed the sooner those therapies can begin.”

According to helpguide.org, common symptoms of autism are as follows:

Your baby or toddler doesn’t:

Make eye contact, such as looking at you when being fed or smiling when being smiled at;

Respond to his or her name, or to the sound of a familiar voice;

Follow objects visually or follow your gesture when you point things out;

Point or wave goodbye, or use other gestures to communicate;

Make noises to get your attention;

Initiate or respond to cuddling or reach out to be picked up;

Imitate your movements and facial expressions;

Play with other people or share interest and enjoyment;

Notice or care if you hurt yourself or experience discomfort.

Smith warns, however, that symptoms are not always obvious.

“You don’t always see autism,” she said. “There are some comorbid diagnoses that are included with the spectrum. A lot of times you’ll notice lack of eye contact. It’s been described by many autistics that it’s painful to look someone in the eye. There are some behaviors where they do a lot of fidgeting or flapping of the arms.”

Unfortunately for local families, diagnoses are often difficult to get.

“Speaking with many families in Roswell who are trying to get that diagnosis so they can get the needed therapies,” Smith said, “they’ve gone through many hurdles. A lot of times they have to go out of town to do that.”

While specific behaviors can be addressed, the syndrome itself is a permanent condition.

“Autism is a lifelong condition,” Smith said. “They learn to adapt using different skills such as from behavioral therapy. If there is a behavior that someone is displaying, they go into behavioral therapy and they learn how to control different behaviors that are occurring, but it does not go away. A lot of children and adults struggle with fine motor skills, they get help developing social skills to get through interactions with society in a socially acceptable way.”

Smith said it is important to understand that autism is not a disease.

“It’s really not a disease,” she said. “It’s a developmental disability. It affects motor, language and social skills. It’s a matter of learning to connect with these individuals in a way that they understand. They’re very visual learners. A lot of times you’ll find yourself having to phrase things differently because they’re very literal in their interpretations. A lot of them don’t like changes, changes in routine, change in faces, a substitute teacher in a classroom can be enough to set off their whole day.”

Smith said autism awareness has come a long way in a short time.

“There was a time about 20 years ago when people with autism were institutionalized,” she said. “There are four or five classifications of autism, now. We think of it as a spectrum. There are high functioning, like Asperger’s, then there are lower functioning who need quite a bit of assistance with every day living.”

Smith said they try to support the families of autistic children, but it can be a challenge.

“We do try to hold support groups,” she said. “The support groups faded out for a bit. I’m a volunteer, and when people stop showing up we have to find new ways to reach out to them. We have moms’ meet up groups that allow families to connect with other families.”

The society has a number of get-togethers they encourage families who live with autism to attend.

“We have our annual holiday party coming up,” Smith said. “We have our sensory sensitive Santa and Mrs. Claus. The Christmas Railway is hosting an autism night for us. It’s a private night where the children don’t have to worry about large crowds, that can be very overwhelming. We call it a sensory sensitivity night. It’s a more calming event. They normally would not go when there are a hundred people out there. They just can’t tolerate it.

“Every April we do our Autism Walk, we’re already planning for that. It’s our biggest fundraiser and allows us to do things like the Christmas Railway and the holiday party.”

Smith said the biggest concern for families with autistic children is not being left out of things.

“What we’re really trying to push for our children is inclusion,” she said. “Just because they’re a little bit different, does not mean they don’t want friends. They want to be included in community projects and in activities. They want to be recognized as a person and as an individual.”

Smith is available to any families that need assistance or anybody who might wish to help out.

“We don’t have a local office here,” she said. “I can be reached at kristasmith@nmautismsociety.org or 575-840-4626. I accept calls any time.”

Features reporter Curtis M. Michaels can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.

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