PUBLISHED: 4:50 PM on Wednesday, June 6, 2007
Autism's grasp on people can vary widely, with many functioning well
LUBBOCK, Texas - It was difficult for Eric Singletary to make friends as a child because he felt extremely uneasy communicating with other people.

"Growing up, I really didn't have any friends, and I would try to avoid social situations," he said. "I wanted friends. I just couldn't figure people out. So, I would, for the most part, avoid them."

When he was a teenager, Singletary was diagnosed with Asberger syndrome, a high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.

After years of sitting in the corner reading a book instead of playing with other children at recess, Singletary said he decided to push himself to be social.

In middle school, he became involved in theater and found acceptance and a creative outlet where he learned the social skills he believed he lacked.

Now 21, Singletary said he continues to make an effort to become more social and has begun going to the Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research in the Education Building at Texas Tech in hopes of joining some of the center's social groups.

Singletary recently moved to Lubbock from Midland to attend Tech. He is an honor student and is studying natural history and humanities.

He said he will not let Asberger syndrome get in the way of becoming a nature writer.

"Now that I'm older, college is a little bit safer for people with Asberger," he said. "I still have a lot of struggles that I'm going through."

Autism spectrum disorders are a distinct group of neurological conditions characterized by impairment in language and communication skills as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The disorders range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, to a milder form, Asberger syndrome, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

People with autistic disorder sometimes cannot talk to communicate but can mimic songs or phrases they've heard. They may only eat certain things. Or they may show no emotion during typically emotional situations such as when they are dropped off at school for the first time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network released data this year that found one in 150 8-year-old children in multiple areas of the U.S. had an autism spectrum disorder.

Boys are four times more often diagnosed with autism than girls, but girls who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder typically are more severe, said Dr. Karen Rogers, a physician at University Medical Center Kings Park Family Health Center.

No one knows what causes it.

Children with autism can be diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, Rogers said. In some cases, children will develop signs as early as 18 months.

Autism is a deficit in three areas: speech and language skills prior to age 3, non-verbal skills such as poor facial expressions and eye contact, and restricted or repetitive interests, Rogers said. For example, a child with autism may only be interested in trains and find it difficult to deviate from that subject during conversation.

Early signs of autism spectrum disorder in children include an inability to communicate, no interest in playing with toys and laughing or crying for no reason.

Autism can't always be diagnosed right away because children will pick up words initially, Rogers said.The earlier children with autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed, the better they respond to treatment, Rogers said.

"The early intervention - those kids do really well," she said. "The goal is to get them in services as soon as you know what's going on."

Treatment options for people with autism spectrum disorders include speech and occupational therapy and social skills training.

Karlie Watts, 26, was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder when she was 19.

"The thing is that I don't like bright lights and I don't like sounds and I don't like some smells," she said.

Watts said her autistic tendencies made her childhood difficult, but now that she's older, she has several friends with whom she likes to listen to blues and play music.

Watts works as an assistant at the Burkhart Center.

The Burkhart Center has given Watts a support system of friends and student assistants that are helping her learn vocational skills such as typing.

Robin Lock, associate professor of education, said the Burkhart Center offers services to individuals with autism spectrum disorders, their families and Tech professors who work with them.

The center provides educational workshops, support services and services for young adults including social groups, tutoring, job coaching and life-skills programs.