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Couple pours experience into autism exposition

The Baltimore Sun

Having found their way through a sea of opinions, options and opportunities to find the right care for their autistic triplets, Randy and Lynn Gaston are preparing this weekend to provide some illumination to other parents facing the same daunting task.

The Ellicott City couple has spent more than six months organizing Autism Expo 2007, which will bring autism experts and support organizations together at Howard Community College on Saturday so families can start to sort through available resources.

Twenty speakers are scheduled to give seminars and be on hand for one-on-one conversations. Thirty-five exhibitors from medial centers, nonprofit organizations and treatment providers will be set up throughout the day. More than 300 people from several states had registered for the event as of last week.

"I think if somebody is coming to this event, they are coming for one reason," Randy Gaston said. "Information is power, and they want to take advantage of the information we are providing."

A recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one out of every 150 8-year-olds exhibits symptoms of autism, the highest number it has reported.

No single cause has been found for autism, and the diagnosis includes a wide range of impairment, according to the Autism Society of America. A range of therapies focusing on behavior and communication can be effective, depending on the individual case.

The program's keynote speaker, Dr. Vincent J. Carbone, is a behavior analyst who runs a clinic in New York. He said it can be difficult to find highly qualified therapists and for families to sort through all of the offerings to find ones with measurable results.

"Choosing the right form of treatment and most effective providers is absolutely critical," he said. Early intervention, he said, is also a key to getting a good outcome.

The Gastons watched Nicholas, Hunter and Zachary arrive small but healthy five years ago and saw them develop normally until about age 2. Then they all started exhibiting different levels of the traits that characterize autism: a loss of language and social skills, repetitive or unusual behaviors and sensitivity to their environment.

Today, the Gastons' boys are still lagging in their development, and only Zachary uses language. But the three are cheerful and responsive to their parents, after applied behavioral analysis, occupational therapy and speech therapy.

Randy Gaston said he and his wife felt they were left on their own once they received the diagnosis of autism. They turned to the Internet and other parents for suggestions and guidance.

"We wanted to stop people from spending a lot of money for services they may or may not need," Gaston said. With the Expo they can say, "Here are the programs. Here are the people who provide services. You know your child best. Talk to these people before you drop a dime out of your pocket."

Gaston, who works as a graphic designer for the Maryland Association of Boards of Education, said it has been a lot of work to organize the Expo on top of a challenging family life.

But, he said, his family's journey has helped him understand what is out there for people dealing with autism, and it has enabled his family to build camaraderie with other parents and caregivers.

"You learn there is a little secret society," he said. "You are part of a bigger thing. I think that is a very positive statement. ... You are the biggest advocate your child will have, and this type of event really facilitates that advocacy."


Information about the Expo is available at www.autismexpo.com or 443-867-5440. Registration is required. Tickets will not be available at the door.

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