Not long ago, Brenda Poorman and her husband, Trey, had to keep alarms in their windows and locks on the doors of their Bellwood home - not to prevent someone from getting in, but to keep their 8-year-old son, Cole, from getting out.
And the boy's desire to flee their house and jump the 4-foot-high chain-link fence that surrounds it was strong, Brenda Poorman, 34, said. His objective: To enter neighbors' houses in search of running ceiling fans to gaze at and light switches to flick on and off.
"He's definitely a runner," Brenda Poorman said. "We're in the process of getting a service dog for him ... to keep him in the yard."
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Cole Poorman, 8, pulls his sister Atherton, 5, and his brother Dalton, 3, in a wagon near his Bellwood home.
Why the erratic behavior? Cole has autism, a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, said Dr. Candace Good, the child psychiatrist at Sunbridge Health in State College who treats him. Cole was diagnosed when he was 4.
Obsession with spinning objects is just one of many traits exhibited by people with autism, she added. Other characteristics include delays in speech or language development, laughing or crying for no apparent reason, preference to being alone, uneven gross or fine motor skills, no fears of danger, oversensitivity or undersensitivity to pain, difficulty in mixing with others and non-responsiveness to verbal cues, even though hearing tests are in the normal range.
''With autism, kids have a very restricted range of behaviors and interests,'' Good said. ''They may be into Thomas the Train, for example, and just play with that all day long, rather than playing with other kids. They usually have difficulty adjusting to changes in routine or moving from one thing to another.''
n Four anti-psychotic medications that have been approved by the FDA to treat autism are clozapine, risperidone, olanzapine and quetiapine.
n Stimulants, such as Ritalin and Adderall, used to treat hyperactivity in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have also been prescribed for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
n If you are considering the use of medications, contact a medical professional experienced in treating individuals on the autism spectrum to learn of possible side effects and discuss potential benefit.
n Serotonin re-uptake inhibitors have been effective in treating depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and anxiety that present in some individuals with ASD.
Vitamin B plays an important role in creating enzymes needed by the brain. In several studies on the use of vitamin B and magnesium (which is needed to make vitamin B effective), almost half of the individuals with autism showed improvement.
It is important not to withdraw gluten/casein food products at once from a child's diet, as there can be withdrawal symptoms. Parents wishing to pursue such a diet should consult a gastroenterologist or nutritionist.
Source: Autism Society of America, Bethesda, Md. www.autism-society.org
Good described autism as a ''spectrum disease,'' meaning it can range from milder forms, such as Asperger's Syndrome, in which ''the main issue is no history of speech delay'' and is usually not diagnosed until age 11, to more severe forms, whereby kids have never developed meaningful language or communication skills. Also, every child has different symptoms, she said - specifically, in regards to sensory issues.
''Some kids don't like tags on their clothing, or will only eat certain textures of foods,'' she said.
The Poormans also are in the process of putting in a 6-foot-high vinyl fence around their yard as a precautionary measure for Cole, Brenda Poorman said.
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Dodie Kustaborder, 34, of Bellwood described her 10-year-old son, Hunter, as having ''high-functioning'' autism, meaning he has ''just a little bit'' of the disorder.
''He was about 21/2 or 3 years old when we found out (he was autistic),'' she said. ''He was severely delayed in certain developmental areas - talking, walking and making eye contact with us. We'd get right in front of him, and he'd look right through us - and he would never respond to his name."
Dodie and her husband, Scott Kustaborder, 35, took Hunter to a child neurologist in Pittsburgh, who told them in no uncertain terms he had autism. He had many tell-tale signs: Not only was he non-responsive, but he avoided his peers and had difficulty learning even the smallest things - like teaching him to say ''help me'' in times of frustration, Dodie Kustaborder said.
But since that time, he's made marked improvement with his symptoms, she said, attributing what she called ''tremendous growth'' to the gluten-free diet she and Scott put him on at age 8. The diet consists of cod liver oil, soy milk, low sugar intake, vitamin B6 and a child's probiotic (a dietary supplement containing potentially beneficial bacteria or yeasts).
''Without the gluten-free diet, his symptoms get really bad,'' she said. ''I won't medicate him because I believe God put natural things on this earth that we can use.''
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Rebekah and Frank Pulcinello, 31 and 34, respectively, of Tyrone suspected something was different about their 3-year-old son Frankie, when at 9 months he wasn't making eye contact with either of them. He still hasn't developed verbalization skills, and he "bangs his head" when he gets frustrated or angry - two reasons Rebekah Pulcinello is a stay-at-home mom.
"We've decided to focus on his communication skills from home this year," she said. "We're working on signing, and teaching him to use pictures to say things. We tried day cares, but he was too much of a distraction."
Frankie also is aided by occupational therapy, physical therapy, a behavioral specialist and a therapeutic support staff, she said, adding that the hardest thing about her son having autism is that many people just don't understand the disorder.
''Taking him out is hard because he just can't handle it - it's sensory overload for him,'' she said. ''And other people don't understand it. They just want you to shut your kid up. It's hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around the issues ... instead of just thinking you have a 'bad child,' they need to learn a little about the disorder.''
And the tricky part is, aside from the behavior quirks, it's often impossible to tell a child has autism, Good said.
''They just look like normal kids behaving badly, so people get the wrong ideas,'' she said.
Though there's no cure for autism, early intervention is important to staving off its negative effects, Good said.
''Early diagnosis is important so kids can get into specialized classroom placement or a structured school setting," she said. "Also, as kids with milder forms, like Asperger's, get older, they're particularly vulnerable to depression because they become more aware of their differences.
''Right now, we don't know what causes it,'' she said. "All we know is that it's important to get support for your family because this can be a very difficult thing to deal with.''
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.