By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Mar 31, 2008 at 5:25 AM

When Christine and Eric Prigge’s son, Gus, was 18 months old, they suspected something was amiss. Gus, who has a twin brother, did not respond to his name, made very little eye contact, didn’t play with age-appropriate toys and seemed distant.

At the time, Christine expressed her concerns to Gus’ pediatrician, but was told developmental disabilities in young children could not be diagnosed until 3 years old. At Gus’ next appointment, Christine voiced her observations again and was again told that she would have to wait for a diagnosis. This time, Christine didn’t settle for the doctor’s response, and started talking to friends about her son’s behavior.

“Six months later, I spoke with a friend who has a neighbor with an autistic child.  She got names and numbers for us to call to get things checked out and the journey began,” says Christine.

Today, Gus is 3 ½ years old and considered in the mild-to-moderate autistic range. The recommended treatment is 35 hours a week of intensive in-home behavior therapy, but because Wisconsin currently does not mandate insurance coverage for kids diagnosed with autism, the Prigges were forced to pay for Gus’ therapy out-of-pocket.

Although both Eric and Christine are college graduates with professional jobs -- Eric is a fleet manager for Milwaukee Electric Tool Corporate and Christine is a middle school teacher -- the two professional parents could not afford the annual treatment costs that range between $30,000 and $70,000, depending on the number of therapy hours.

“Some Wisconsin parents are waiting years to receive help in the cost of treatment through the Wisconsin Medicaid Waiver, and out-of-pocket autism treatment is so expensive it is cost prohibitive for many Wisconsin families,” says Kathryn Luttkus, grants manager of Easter Seals Kindcare Southeastern Wisconsin.

The Prigges turned to non-profit organizations for additional help, including early intervention with Easter Seals.

“Easter Seals has helped not only Gus but our family,” says Christine. “Our friends at Easter Seals not only helped my son, but held my hand, listened to my concerns, felt my pain and helped dry my tears.  I can’t thank them enough for all they have done for us.”

A few months after Gus’ diagnosis, his twin brother Max was diagnosed with a milder form of autism called Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.

“In many ways, Max was a much harder diagnosis to take. We had hoped that Max would help Gus through some of his challenges rather than having so many of his own,” says Christine.

According to Easter Seals’ statistics, there was a 200 percent increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism in the last 10 years, making autism more prevalent in kids than Downs syndrome, childhood diabetes and cancer combined.

“In Wisconsin, a child is diagnosed with autism every day,” says Luttkus.

The reason for the increase in autism is unknown. Studies show that autism is four times more prevalent in boys than in girls, suggesting genetics could be responsible. Some speculate vaccines cause autism, other possible causes include exposure to toxins, low birth weight or maternal exposure to ruebella.

“There is no known cause or cure, nor one single, effective treatment for autism. Autism is an incredibly complex disorder that affects many different areas of the brain, and no two children are alike,” says Luttkus. “A basic rule for treating autism is the earlier the intervention, the better. Early diagnosis is critical.”

Autism is usually diagnosed in children between 18 months and 3 years. Luttkus says parents should talk to their pediatrician and request an autism screening if they feel something is “not right” with their child and / or their child isn’t meeting age-appropriate milestones.

There is no cure for autism, and children do not outgrow it, however, early intervention helps the child develop to their full potential. Unfortunately, treatment -- especially early treatment -- is hard to achieve for many Wisconsin families.

There are five types of disorders that fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder umbrella. Here they are:
Autistic Disorder -- Severely disordered verbal and non-verbal language; unusual behaviors. Occurs in males four times more than females and involves moderate to severe impairments in communication, socialization and behavior.
Asperger Syndrome -- Sometimes considered a milder form of autism, Asperger’s is typically diagnosed later in life than other disorders on the spectrum. People with Asperger syndrome usually function in the average to above average intelligence range and have no delays in language skills, but often struggle with social skills and restrictive and repetitive behavior.
Rett Syndrome -- Diagnosed primarily in females who exhibit typical development until approximately five to 30 months when children with Rett syndrome begin to regress, especially in terms of motor skills and loss of abilities in other areas. A key indicator of Rett is meaningless movements or gestures.
Childhood Disintegrative Disorder -- Involves a significant regression in skills that have previously been acquired, and deficits in communication, socialization and / or restrictive and repetitive behavior.
PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorders) -- Severe and pervasive impairment in the development of reciprocal social interaction or verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

“More than a generation ago, Easter Seals was front and center during the polio epidemic, working tirelessly to help children and adults with polio gain the skills they needed to live independently through medical rehabilitation and various therapies," says Bob Glowacki, Easter Seal Kindcare CEO. "And now, Easter Seals is the country’s leading provider of services for people with autism today.”

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.