Wisconsin News

Health experts see more cases of autism in La Crosse area

LA CROSSE, Wis. - A new survey shows 1 in 50 children has autism, which is up from the previous estimate of 1 in 88.

Medical experts in the La Crosse area say it's an increase we're seeing close to home.

The new numbers come from a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some say the higher ratio could be due to better diagnosis practices, but some autism specialists in the La Crosse area say the number of children with autism is on the rise.


"I think more and more children have autism. I think we're seeing an increase," said Gundersen Lutheran Medical Education Specialist Deb Olufs.

Olufs says a lot has changed since she started at the hospital 17 years ago.

"At the interview I was told 'you might see 10 children who are suspected of having an autism spectrum in a year,' and I probably see that number in closer to a month now than to a year," said Olufs.

It's a trend in-home autism therapy providers are also seeing.

"We've gone from seven kids to about 60-plus kids, so we're growing pretty rapidly," said Dr. Karen Londre.

Londre started her in-home autism therapy company, Reaching Your Potential, five years ago.

"We get calls all the time to serve kids," said Londre.

They receive so many calls they even have to turn some families away.

But even so, both Londre and Olufs say autism services in the La Crosse community are doing a pretty good job of growing with the need.

"I've seen parent support groups emerge. I've seen horse therapy programs emerge. UW-L has been doing a lot of work with how do we help children with these types of disorders?" said Olufs.

"I would say La Crosse is probably one of the better areas. I think the clinics around here are helpful in diagnosing. It builds from there, there's more providers in our area than maybe out in the rural areas," said Londre.

But despite the many ways to receive help, Olufs says living with autism is a challenging task.

"It's a life-changing disability. These are not children who can leave their problems at school or at the playground. It's with them all the time," said Olufs.

Olufs says because of the way the CDC survey was conducted, a phone call to 95,000 families, she thinks it may be kind of a high estimate.

She says a more accurate ratio probably lies between 1 in 50 and 1 in 88.

Health experts say another important element in helping children with autism is good school programming.

La Crosse School District officials say they've seen a small increase of students with autism but have plenty of staff to provide the necessary programs.

They say the majority of students on the autism spectrum are able to get the help they need in a general classroom because all teachers go through intervention training.

"For our students on the spectrum, they've had the benefit of having interventions that all kids get so they're not stigmatized to stand out, and our classroom teachers have been wonderful in applying those regardless of the needs of the kids -- and I say regardless because they look at them as all kids," said Pam Foegen with the Special Education Department in the La Crosse School District.

The district says students are only transferred to special education classrooms after all the general classroom intervention strategies are used.

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