Elijah Kelly never meets a stranger.

The S.C. Lee Junior High School eighth-grader made his way from group to group introducing himself and making new friends. Nearby, his younger brother Caleb, 12, grooved to the beat of the 1980s music blaring throughout the school stadium, seemingly in his own world.

The Kelly brothers were the inspiration for about 50 walkers making their way around the track Tuesday night to draw attention to autism. Both of the boys were diagnosed with autism.

Ron Reynolds, Copperas Cove Independent School District’s autism specialist, said the numbers of those diagnosed is climbing,

“The numbers have gone from 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 88. Doctors are getting smarter in the fields that cause autism and are finding some adults with autism who were never diagnosed as children,” Reynolds said.

Most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report 1 in 68 people were diagnosed in 2013, which was a 30 percent increase since 2012. Boys, like the Kellys, are nearly four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls.

Their father, Sgt. 1st Class William Kelly, said the disability affects the entire family as well as his career in the Army.

“Because of the services they need, I am limited where I can be stationed. And because of all of the deployments I have done, that has also kept me here at Fort Hood,” said Kelly, who deployed four times from 2004 to 2013 and completed a one-year unaccompanied tour to Korea to further stabilize his assignment here for his family.

Elijah was born while the family was stationed in Germany in 2002 and was diagnosed in 2003 at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood.

Kelly said the services his family receives through the Army’s Exceptional Family Member Program ensures his children’s medical and emotional needs are met. On average, autism costs a family $60,000 annually.

“Eli doesn’t just have autism. He also has Crohn’s which affects his immune system. We have to go to Austin every month for treatment,” Kelly said. “With Caleb having autism too, we got a double dose.”

The cause of autism is not fully known. Research reveals the disability is somewhat genetic but rare gene mutations or combinations of genetic variables cause a disorder of neural development. Autism also has been associated with environmental things such as heavy metals and pesticides, which cause birth defects.

Eighty students in Cove ISD have been diagnosed as autistic with various levels of functionality.

In addition to funding a staff position dedicated to the needs of these students, Cove ISD hosts a monthly meeting at 6 p.m. the last Tuesday of every month at Clements-Parsons Elementary.

Services available to students also are available on the Cove ISD website under the link “Boomerang.”

Some people with autism display special abilities as a result of their condition. Reynolds said he witnesses special gifts in some Cove ISD students with autism.

“It’s amazing. I have one student that can quickly tell you every president of the United States in order.”

Eli continued making his way around the track Tuesday night, visiting with everyone and sharing his gift of never meeting a stranger.

“Autism helps our people to make more perfect,” he said.

Contact Wendy Sledd at wsledd@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7476

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