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Son inspires Morris woman to organize autism support group

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Autism is a more common disorder than people might think, yet what it is remains a mystery to most people, even among those who live with it every day.

That could change locally. Amy Brandt, a mother of an autistic child and a Public Health Nurse for Stevens Traverse Grant Public Health, is working to organize a support group for people living with autism and its "spectrum disorders," such as Asperger syndrome.

"Early intervention is so crucial," Brandt said. "The earlier you start to deal with it the better outcomes you will have."

April was Autism Month, and the 2008 Minnesota State Autism Conference wrapped up over the weekend. Brandt wants to keep that momentum going by starting the support group.

Brandt's son, Dylan, 5, was about 2-years-old when Brandt and her husband, Jared, suspected something wasn't quite right. One sign cropped up at his birthday party that year.

"He wanted nothing to do with it," Brandt said. "He wanted to sit in our neighbor's yard."

That's one sign of the brain development disorder. It impairs social skills and communication. Another is repetitive behavior. Mostly, Dylan's vocabulary consisted mostly of repeating lines from movies, and he was obsessed with light switches, turning them on and off compulsively, Brandt said.

But Dylan has an amazing memory, she said, and had a firm command of colors, numbers and letters at a very young age. And yet because the causes and hallmarks of autism are hard to pin down, so is a diagnosis. Dylan was diagnosed by age 3.

"Everybody but me was in denial," Brandt said. "They said I was just a nervous mother. I was nervous but because I knew something was going on."

With the help of special programs and the understanding of his family - Amy, Jared and 2-year-old Ethan - Dylan has made great strides. He rides the bus to school and he has been mainstreamed into regular classes with the help of an aide, Brandt said.

There will always be difficult times ahead. Because it's a social disability, Dylan sometimes has problems in public. Because he appears in many ways to be a typical child, people don't understand why he sometimes acts up. He has sensory issues, so an environment that's too loud or has too much activity can be a problem, Brandt said.

"People with autism are very intelligent and they can get better," Brandt said. "But there's this wall to get across."

For more information about a local autism support group, contact Brandt at (320) 589-7425. For more information about autism in Minnesota, see the Web site