DHI Media Correspondent
VAN WERT — As parent mentor service coordinator for Western Buckeye Education Service Center, Cathy Ruiz spends her time these days providing support and services to parents and children with disabilities.
Ruiz works with students in school districts served by Western Buckeye ESC in Paulding and Van Wert counties. One of the primary conditions Ruiz comes into contact with is autism.
“Cases concerning autism involve either or a combination of at-risk genes and environmental factors,” said Ruiz. “There is a greater awareness of this now. There is much more care now to observing warnings, red flags and various group characteristics.
“Autism is a spectrum disorder, a huge spectrum,” she continued. “One child stresses one way, another child may not have the same stresses in a different way. One of the greatest dangers of autistic children is that of wandering. Drowning is a leading cause of death of children with autism spectrum.”
Ruiz said there is a natural tendency for those with autism to run away. They tend to wander into traffic and other dangerous places.
One of the most common difficulties of those with autism, said Ruiz, is learning to communicate properly. A large share of those with autism struggle with a condition known as echolalia, a communication disorder.
“They get upset with changes in routine or apparently for what we would consider a very trivial reason,” said Ruiz. “Sirens or light cause negative anxiety. If we can move away from crowds and noise, it is helpful to them.”
One thing that helps workers in Ruiz’s position is experience with family members or close friends who have gone through similar times. Unfortunately that connection was unusually close to Ruiz and her husband John.
Early in the childhood of their oldest son, Ruiz and her husband began to recognize that he was a “non-verbal” child, capable of only using two or three words at a time.
“It wasn’t until he was seven that he started communicating wants and needs,” said Ruiz. “He had a lot of meltdowns when he was young because of the lack of communication.”
Eventually it was discovered that Ruiz had allergies to gluten and casein, an allergy associated with milk consumption. Once he was placed on diets to correct those allergies, it seemed to settle some of his physical discomforts, but it didn’t change many of the other manifestations of what was going to become a diagnosis for autism.
“He was diagnosed with autism when he was four and a half,” said Ruiz. “He was given a full-time aide to assist with autism intervention until the time when he reached junior high.
“Autistic kids are so visual. Even though he couldn’t speak more than two or three words, he learned the alphabet by memorizing pictures on the computer. By the time he was two and a half, he had memorized 125 computer words,” continued Ruiz. “Once we found the diet solution, we alleviated some of the behaviors. He was a sweet loving person.”
Ruiz said that with proper intervention and modifications, he was able to attend school where he progressed in the midst of his disability. “I can’t emphasize how important early intervention is,” stressed Ruiz. “It is so essential to start the intervention as early as possible. He progressed through school to graduation, with the help of an aide to assist in some classes.”
In addition to her work at Western Buckeye, Ruiz is also president of the executive board for the Ohio Coalition for the Education of Children with Disabilities.
“I love what I do. I have a passion to do what I do,” observed Ruiz. “I’m concerned about families who deal with daily challenges of disabilities. I am aware of how emotionally draining this can be for a parent.”