Usually it is mom who knows first. She knows her child is different but she just cannot quite put her finger on why. Just different. But that is the time to tell a doctor of her concerns and have her child evaluated for possible autism, Janie Sexton, director of the Lonoke Exceptional Development Center remarked. "Early diagnosis is so important. The earlier therapy is started, the better it is for the child," she said.

April is national Autism Awareness Month, and on April 2 County Judge Doug Erwin met with several county families with children coping with the disorder to proclaim the month for Lonoke County.

Patti Weathers, who organized the day, said the numbers of children diagnosed as autistic is growing, and dealing with he disorder is becoming more important.

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) describes Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as "a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior."

ASD varies significantly in character and severity, and occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information estimates that one out of 88 eight-year-old children will have an ASD, with males four times more likely to have an ASD than females.

It is a different way of looking at things, BJ and Cindy Weathers of Ward, whose daughter, Lillyann, was recently diagnosed, and Leah Johnson of Lonoke, whose son, Zakary, who was diagnosed about two years ago, said at the signing.

But all three said there is nothing "not smart" about their children, and it is a mistake to equate autism with learning disabilities.

"She just doesn’t relate like you and I do. She is very aware of what is going around her…She can operate a smart phone better than you and I can," BJ Weathers said.

To demonstrate, he gave 30-month-old Lillyann a smart phone that had been turned off. Within a few seconds, she had the phone operating and was playing her favorite game. "See. She’s better with it than we are," he said.

Cindy Weathers said Lillyann is fortunate to be among those diagnosed early, but it came out of an evaluation other than for autism.

"She started to talk, and then just stopped," Weathers said. There were other indicators, such as "coldness," but they did not recognize the signs, she said.

Then, through a speech evaluation and health checks, it was found Lillyann did not match a number of child development criteria, and further evaluation at the Dennis Development Center at UAMS brought the diagnosis of autism.

"But now we know it just means we have to learn a way of raising our child that is very different from what we expected to be doing," Weathers said.

Johnson said her experience was more of an ordeal, with Zakary being treated for attention deficit and hyperactivity before coming to the realization he is autistic. He was not diagnosed until he was 7 years old, she said.

"Oh. He is very smart; he has a photographic memory. He never had a problem learning," Johnson said. It is his interaction with people where the difficulty comes in, and there is some hyperactivity involved. "He is busy, busy, busy," she said.

Also, Zakary seems to relate to adults better than children, Johnson said. His social skills are different than what might be called "typical," she said.

But looking back, she now sees the early signs of autism.

"He did not start talking until he was between three and four. Very little eye contact, would not respond to his name, there were others," Johnson said.

"If there is any doubt, call the exceptional school for an evaluation. The key is early therapy," Johnson said.

Weathers said understanding what Lillyann is experiencing has helped him "immensely" in connecting with her, and understanding the triggers to her behaviors.

And, now that he recognizes a "meltdown" he better understands when he sees it happening to others, Weathers said. Instead of wishing a parent would do something about their misbehaving child, he understands the course the "tantrum" has to take.

Sexton said there are many misconceptions about autism, but probably the most prevalent is the belief it is connected with learning disabilities. Learning problems are no more common to autism as in other groups, on the contrary, it is usually that an autistic person takes in too much, she said.

"You and I, we learn to filter things, ignore the small things. Someone with autism sees and hears everything all the time," Sexton said.

Personal tablet computers, smart phones and other computer applications work well with autistic persons, "Because the applications are predictable," Sexton said.

While recent years have seen a 30 percent increase in diagnoses of autism, she believes this can be attributed to better screening and recognition of the signs, Sexton said.

"I don’t think that it is developing more, we just see it better now. But this is good, very good. Because the earlier therapy begins the better it is for everyone all around," Sexton said.

"Moms are most likely to know before anyone else. She usually suspects something is different," Sexton said. "Parents have told me that they just had a feeling of something being different. Not wrong. But different."

Johnson and the Weatherses both said same feeling struck them. "If you have even the slightest doubt, get it checked," Johnson said.

Sexton said that while services such as LEDC can evaluate children, only the Dennis Development Center at UAMS can "officially" diagnose the disorder. "We can tell parents if it needs to go any further," she said.

NINDS information notes that autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified - usually referred to as PDD-NOS.

Sexton said the Lonoke Exceptional Development Center is able to advise parents on the steps to take. Contact LEDC Lonoke campus at 501-676-2786; or the Cabot campus at 501-628-5580.