Grandmothers Raise Autism Awareness

By Sue Ellen Woodcock

Lou Ann Meola and Debra Hendricks are the best of friends, sharing not only friendship but the understanding of what it means to have an autistic grandson.

Both women have asked the City Council and Councillor George Rotondo to make sure the Markey Bridge is lighted blue for Autism Awareness Month during the month of April. Now the blue light glows at night.

“We have to raise awareness about autism,” Meola said, adding that she wishes public safety employees, police, fire and others knew as much as they could about autism.

Her grandson Jared is four-years old and Hendricks’ son is 29. Both women have raised their grandsons as a result of unrelated health issues. Hendricks lost her daughter to cancer when her grandson was young.

A couple of years ago Jared’s mother noticed he was not responding and he had a hard time chewing because of a defect with his tongue. She took Jared to be tested and was diagnosed with autism. Now he is in an early intervention school in Melrose and his tongue has been repaired.

“When I first found out I did know what autism was and I read up on it,” Meola said.

Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted and repetitive behavior. Parents usually notice signs in the first two years of their child’s life.

Autism is included within the autism spectrum, as is Asperger syndrome (ASD) which lacks delays in cognitive development and language, and pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified.

Globally, autism is estimated to affect 21.7 million people as of 2013. As of 2010, the number of people affected is estimated at about 1–2 per 1,000 people worldwide. It occurs four to five times more often in boys than girls. About 1.5 percent of children in the United States are diagnosed with ASD as of 2014, a 30 percent increase in 2012. The number of people diagnosed has been increasing dramatically since the 1980s, partly due to changes in diagnostic practice.

Hendricks said raising her grandson with Asperger’s has been difficult but she finds comfort knowing the two of them live next to each other. She is able to watch over him and he is able to live a fairly independent life.

“You have to enter their world,” Hendricks said, adding that her grandson has a lot of sensory issues and went through special education.

Through all her reading, Meola found a saying she lives by, “Autism is proof that love needs no words.” She wears her autism heart bracelet and her puzzle piece charm to spread the word about autism.

“There is so much to learn about autism that you’re never going to know it all,” Meola said. But Meola would like to see police and firefighters trained in autism and its many facets, including Asperger’s so there are no misunderstandings between officials and someone with autism.

“There has to be more education,” Hendricks said.

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