Hawaii’s Autism Epidemic

Susan Sunderland
Wednesday - June 14, 2006
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Autistic children, says Wong, with Leigh, are capable of great affection
Autistic children, says Wong, with Leigh, are
capable of great affection

Every 21 minutes a child somewhere is found to have a neuro development disorder.

Kalma Wong is all too familiar with this ticking time bomb, and she’s driven to do something about it. The Kaneohe resident is the mother of four children, two of whom are autistic.

Affecting one in every 166 children born today, autism is one of the nation’s fastest-growing childhood disorders. It is characterized by impairment in communications skills, social interactions, and repetitive patterns of behavior.


The Cure Autism Now foundation recognized five residents who are proactively raising awareness of this condition. Proponents say autism can be treated, and a major breakthrough is expected within the coming decade.

Kalma Wong at home with, from left, Dylan, Alec, Leigh and Kera
Kalma Wong at home with, from left, Dylan, Alec, Leigh
and Kera

Honorees were Wong, founder-president of the Hawaii chapter of Cure Autism Now; Christine Williams, Walk Now Honolulu’s top fundraiser and a skills trainer for autistic students; Naomi Grossman, president of the Autism Society of Hawaii, whose 16-year-old son is autistic.

Also, Laura Cook, co-founder of the Hawaii Autism Resource Team whose son has recovered from autism after six years of treatment; and state Rep. Dennis Arakaki, who served on the Cure Autism Now Hawaii chapter committee and introduced relevant legislation.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann recognized the efforts of these valiant individuals, saying he knows how families are affected by the disorder. He has a nephew who is autistic.

As honorees were called to the stage, Wong ducked into the background and shook her head, wanting to shun the spotlight on her contributions.

It would be hard to ignore someone who founded the Hawaii chapter of Cure Autism Now in 2003, chairs its annual Walk Now fundraiser, and spends hours at the legislature and in the community educating people about autism.


She is a “go getter,” her father Kalfred Wong says.

What motivates her?

“They do!” Wong says pointing to her four dark-haired children: Kara, 11; Alec, 8; Dylan, 6; and Leigh, 4.

Dylan was diagnosed with autism at age 2. His mom says, “It was obvious; he just was not communicating.”

But he has progressed “by leaps and bounds” with early intervention and intensive behavioral therapy.

Leigh seemed social at infancy, so Wong and her husband Ken Miyasato did not at first suspect that she was autistic. Then they noticed at age 3 that she was repeating questions rather than answering them.

“People would ask ‘what’s your name’ or ‘how old are you?’ She would answer, ‘what’s your name’ or ‘how old are you?’” Wong explains.

Echolalia, the repetition or echoing of verbal utterances made by another person, is present in up to 75 percent of those diagnosed with autism.

“That was a red flag,” Wong says. “We thought it was a speech development delay. I got evaluation after evaluation. After her third birthday, we got the diagnosis. At that age, it’s harder to get services needed. Early diagnosis and intervention are critical.”

Students once dismissed as simply crazy or retarded are an “invisible minority” who could have gifted perceptions and attentiveness locked within. Seventy-five percent of autistic persons have normal or better IQs.

Wong with son Dylan
Wong with son
Dylan

Some parents who are frustrated by conventional therapies turn to controversial treatments, such as swimming with dolphins, neurofeedback, gluten-free and dairy-free diets, vitamins, anti-anxiety pills, steroids, and eliminating toxins from the home. But there’s no scientific evidence that these treatments work.

Wong describes both her autistic kids as “very intelligent. Leigh was able to put together a 100-piece puzzle when she was 3.”

Another myth about autistic children is that they are not affectionate.

“They have a huge capacity for affection,” Wong says.

Discovering such nuances and finding solutions for autism recovery takes intensive effort by families and their supporters. Wong declares, “One has to become their own expert, especially in Hawaii, where we are so isolated.”

The good news is that research is progressing rapidly, and the national Cure for Autism Now foundation is optimistic about solutions. The non-profit organization has formed targeted initiatives that explore brain mapping, environmental factors, genetics and innovative technology for autism.

But it can’t be too soon for parents and advocates like Wong. She knows that autism has risen with mystifying speed in the past 20 years and is growing at an epidemic pace. In Hawaii, autism is identified in 3.1 percent of special education students, versus 1 percent nationally.

“Everything is focused on money,” she says. “You can save money if the child gets early, intensive treatment. The cost of care (to the community and families) is very high during a life span.

“When I meet kids who have recovered from autism, it does a lot for me. I know they can get well.”

Walk Now, a 3-mile charity walk for Cure Autism Now, takes place Saturday, June 17, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Magic Island, Ala Moana Park. Register at www.walknow.org.

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