Joey Sabo of Altoona is a 10-year-old boy with a wide range of interests.
He's good at math and science. A large poster of the Mario Brothers in his room reflects his love of computer games.
He fits right in with the neighborhood kids, as well as with his third-grade classmates at Logan Elementary.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Joey?Sabo, 10, shows his dad, Shon, some of his Pokemon cards in their Altoona home. Joey suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.
When he's picked up from school, there's plenty of friends waiting to give him a "Bye, Joey" at the end of the day.
But Sabo is also a 10-year-old boy with autism. He was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome four years ago when he was in preschool.
Characteristics of Asperger's include problems with social skills, eccentric or repetitive behaviors, communication difficulties and having a limited range of interests.
Joey's father, Shon, said that there is much more awareness about autism now, both in the general public and with the media - the NBC?show "Parenthood" features a child with Asperger's.
"But just to be walking through the store, and people look at you like you're a bad parent because your kid is having a fit," he said. "It doesn't matter if you smack him on the butt; it's not going to solve the problem. It's not just a behavioral thing."
April is autism awareness month. According to the Associated Press, 1 in 88 kids are diagnosed with a mild form of autism - meaning autism is twice as common as it was 10 years ago. Experts believe that broader screening and diagnoses have contributed to the spike, as well as better awareness and increased programming for early intervention.
Reneya Buseck, the behavioral health rehabilitation service director for NHS Human Services, with a local office based in Altoona, said increased education has made the general population more aware and accepting of this once under-reported condition.
NHS provides a variety of home, school and community support for children with autism and other special needs ages 3 to 21.
"There is more awareness on all levels, whether from a medical standpoint or a school level," Buseck said. "People are just more aware of truly what autism is."
Children and young adults with autism can get involved with NHS Human Services by either calling or being recommended by their school district. Specialists do a psychological consult, behavioral assessment and then develop an individualized treatment plan. The nonprofit group also offers a socialization skills program called Stepping Stones, which is currently offered for children ages 3 to 14. Buseck said the program is in the process of being expanded to those ages 15 to 20.
"There's not a lot of opportunities for that traditional age of individuals," Buseck added.
For children with needs beyond what their school system can provide, NHS Human Services also runs two schools in the area, one on Eighth Avenue in Altoona and the other on Everett Road in East Freedom. Melanie Shildt, school director, said the full-time autism support and smaller class sizes are what have helped many children with special needs graduate from there with their high school diploma.
"It's more of an individualized type of service for students," she said.
Along with providing physical, occupational and speech therapy, Easter Seals of Central Pennsylvania offer sensory integration therapy, and have received a United Way grant to revamp their sensory integration room at the group's Blair County headquarters on Valley View Boulevard in Altoona.
Janet Pennington, the clinical director of occupational, physical and speech therapy for Easter Seals, said the room is designed to foster sensory awareness because those with autism are sometimes unable to process such stimuli.
"Everything is turned up," Pennington said of how autism can skew sensory perception.
A certain percentage of autistic children also never develop verbal skills, Pennington said. For them, Easter Seals has machines, systems and newly purchased iPads that can be used to open up non-verbal ways of communication.
"In many cases, it's the first time they've been able to communicate meaningfully," Pennington said. "They finally have a voice."
Family Behavioral Resources, based in Greensburg with locations in Duncansville, Ebensburg, Bedford and Huntingdon, offers Therapeutic Support Staff (TSS) that can be deployed to work with children in schools.
Heather Moran, the clinical director for Family Behavioral Resources in Duncansville, which provides specialized services to autism patients, said the personnel are utilized to implement interventions and behavior modifications, but also transfer skills to caregivers, teachers and families.
"The overall goal is for every child to progress enough to be independent, and utilize the skills they've learned on their own," she said.
Family Behavioral Resources also offers a family support group, where parents are invited to air their concerns and struggles while children can play in a social atmosphere. Moran said support groups like this are one service she finds to be scarce in the area.
"The thing that's lacking is just families being able to get in one place and say this is what I've been struggling with," she said. "Knowing someone else is struggling with it, too, is really huge."
Shon Sabo has attended this support group, and said that he has been working on socializing Joey with other kids.
"He's very social, and doesn't fit all of the criteria for Asperger's," Shon said.
Joey has also been working with a TSS since he was diagnosed, but his hours with her have been cut back because he's been doing so well in school.
"He did make the honor roll this year," Shon said. "It's the first time he's ever made it."
Check with your school district or family physician for autism resources in your area.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.