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Two-year-old Jacob Fioravanti is a delight to watch as he plays in the plush living room of his Grass Valley home.

Dressed in a T-shirt with gray, red and white stripes, Jacob rolls a cylindrical shape sorter on the shiny parquet floor, and then follows it with giggles, clasping his hands under his chin in excitement.

But to Tommie Conlen and Lisa Sheetz – both experts in autism – Jacob’s obsession with rotating and rolling movements is an indicator of autism.

In fact, Jacob meets all the criteria for an autistic child – including a detached relationship with his parents, who face the ordeal of raising him in a county where public awareness about autism is limited.

“The problem that Nevada County faces with autism is that the services and programs found effective are extremely limited in our county,” Conlen said. “We’re just not big enough and don’t have a consistent autistic population of children to sustain agencies that provide support services.”

In the last couple of years, Conlen has served about 15 autistic children in the county, she said.

There’s also a lack of trained people in the school system who can deal with students with autism, Conlen said.

Conlen is one of the directors of the Nevada County Infant Program located at the Champion Mine Family Resource Center on Hoover Lane in Nevada City. The Infant Program helps autistic children up to the age of three, operated by the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools office.

Both Conlen and Sheetz also educate the community about autism through a grant called Community Autism Support Team (CAST) offered by First 5 Nevada County.

The parents’ journey

Jacob’s parents perceived something wrong with his behavior when he was 10 months old, said his mother, Maryann Fioravanti.

“He would grasp his hand whenever he saw wheels spin,” she said. “It was like an obsession. He would turn over the cars and turn the wheels. That was the first significant sign.”

Jacob’s pediatrician referred him to the Infant Program at his 18-month checkup, Fioravanti said.

Today Jacob visits support groups twice a week at the Champion Mine Family Resource Center. He has a special educator doing home therapy with him thrice weekly.

Like certain autistic children, Jacob uses no words to speak.

“He doesn’t respond to his name because of his lack of understanding of language. He also has no interest in social interaction,” Conlen said.

The special educator teaches Jacob how to interact with people and how to develop language skills.

“It’s a complete process from the time he wakes up to the time we put him to sleep because he doesn’t communicate verbally,” Fioravanti said. “Just trying to figure out what he is trying to say to us (is hard). Sometimes he gets frustrated and then he just screams. At that time, I have to deal with him screaming and then figure out what he was wanting.”

The parents face their own emotional pain, as well.

“When we are with out friends and they have two-year-olds, it’s emotionally hard to see how they connect with their parents and interact,” Fioravanti said. “Jacob can be on the playground all by himself and not look for me. He’d just wonder off in his own world. That’s hard sometimes.”


To contact Soumitro Sen, e-mail soumitros@theunion.com or call 477-4229.

Autism facts

• 1 in 150 children born in America is autistic.

• 1 million to 1.5 million Americans are autistic.

• Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability.

• The disability is growing annually at the rate of 10 percent to 17 percent.

• It’s estimated that up to 560,000 individuals up to age 21 have an autism spectrum disorder.

• In 2005, 193,637 children aged six to 21 years and 30,305 children aged 3 to 5 were served under the autism classification for special education services. The above numbers are thought to underestimate the actual prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children, since not all autistic children receive special education services.

Source: Autism Society of America, Department of Health and Human Services.

Living with autism

The best way to help an autistic child is to detect the syndrome early in life and give the child as much trained support as possible, local autism expert Tommie Conlen said.

To spread understanding about autism in western Nevada County, the Community Autism Support Team is organizing a day-long symposium from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., June 2, in the multipurpose room of Hennessy School, 225 S. Auburn St., Grass Valley.

There will be three speakers at the symposium, including one from the M.I.N.D. Institute – which researches neurodevelopmental disorders and offers treatment – at the University of California Davis.

Registration costs $50; scholarships are available. To register, contact Debra Simmons at 265-0611 ext. 201.

For more information on autism in Nevada County, visit http://www.cast nevadacounty.com.

– Soumitro Sen

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