By Candace Birkelbach

Killeen Daily Herald

You've probably seen this situation at the mall before: a mom struggling to keep her children together and on their best behavior.

Suddenly, one of the children starts shrieking for no apparent reason, and the mother seems to have no control over her own child.

Some thoughts that may have run through your head:

Man, that child is annoying.

That mother needs to learn to control her own children.

Why don't they just leave?

But Fefee Franklin, whose son has autism, wishes people wouldn't be so quick to pass judgment on children who behave inappropriately in public. Instead of staring, she says they should ask the mother if she needs help.

April is Autism Awareness Month – the perfect time to learn about this developmental disability and the families who deal with it on a daily basis.

Franklin, a Killeen resident, has a son with a form of autism that is less severe than most children have; although she has cleared some hurdles, she hasn't forgotten them.

"I remember days when we would walk into the mall and immediately have to turn around and go home," Franklin said.

Living with autism

Franklin's son, Tryndall, plays regularly with friend Wesley, who has a more severe form of autism.

Although the 6-year-old boys are on opposite sides of the spectrum and have different behaviors, they still enjoy each other's company and play video games together.

Valerie Hughes, Wesley's mother, said she wants everyone to be aware of autism and what it means.

"Autism is not contagious, ignorance is," Hughes said.

Hughes said people should not discriminate against those with autism; they should become friends with them.

According to the Autism Society of America's Web site, autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others. Autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a "spectrum disorder" that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees, the Web site states.

Hughes said Wesley developed autism around age 3 and stopped speaking.

Hughes can only use sign language to communicate with her son and has a picture schedule for everything that she and Wesley do.

After completing a task, such as brushing his teeth, Wesley puts a picture card into a basket.

Wesley previously was in a special-needs classroom with 28 children, but now is in a classroom with only five children. Hughes said this situation is much better for Wesley, because he gets more one-on-one attention.

Tryndall developed autism at age 2 and started regressing to younger behaviors, Franklin said.

Tryndall attends school at Timber Ridge Elementary and is in a traditional classroom.

He is a straight-"A" student who loves computer games, Franklin said.

Tryndall can deal with other children, but prefers to be in his own house with his family.

Wesley is an outdoor kid and loves going on car rides, bowling, roller-skating and even to Six Flags.

The one thing Wesley does not like about being outside is the sound of a dog barking. One afternoon, Tryndall asked to go jump on the trampoline outside. Hughes signed "jump" to Wesley, and he excitedly ran to the door.

But after seeing a large dog, he quickly came back inside.

Franklin said outbursts can be triggered by a number of things: the smell of a perfume, the lighting in a room or even high ceilings.

Franklin said autistic children will attempt to "drown out" the disturbance by yelling or running away from it.

Tryndall is sometimes very particular about small things such as how far up his socks are rolled, Franklin said.

Hughes and Franklin said they give each other advice about autism and work together.

Franklin said she would love to see her son become an engineer one day. Hughes said she will be happy if her son just learns to say, "Momma."

Both mothers had to work with their sons' autism while their husbands were serving in Iraq.

Hughes' husband is about to serve his third tour. She said her husband and Wesley have only recently bonded because he was in Iraq when Wesley developed autism.

Hughes said the Killeen area needs more services and resources for children with autism.

Warning signs

Currently, 1 in every 150 people is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, according to the Autism Speaks Web site.

Autism occurs in all racial, ethnic and social groups and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls, the Web site states.

Although no known "cure" for autism exists, there are signs that can assist with early intervention.

Hughes said early intervention is the key to combating autism.

"Don't ignore the warning signs," she said.

Some of those warning signs include difficulty relating to others, lack of eye contact and trouble reading social cues, according to the Autism Speaks Web site.

Autistic children might be prone to repetitive behaviors such as flapping their hands or repeating a certain phrase.

They may also be more or dramatically less sensitive to sights, sounds and touch than typically developing children.

Autism Speaks suggests that those who notice warning signs of autism should contact their doctor immediately for an autism screening.

Both Franklin and Hughes said their children are extremely loving. Wesley loves to laugh, giggle and play in the water, Hughes said.

Both mothers also feel that God gave them autistic children for a reason.

Hughes said she had to get mad before she became an advocate, but now works to help others become aware of autism.

"I wouldn't change it for the world," Franklin said, as she paused and smiled.

Franklin said she has experienced raising both an autistic and neurologically typical child.

She said she has spent equal time raising both.

"God picks special people to deal with special children," Hughes said.

Contact Candace Birkelbach at or call (254) 501-7553

Upcoming events

Texas State Technical College Waco is hosting an art show reception at 6 p.m. April 18 in the Industrial Technology Center atrium.

Original Autism in Action artwork will be on display and parents and participants will have a chance to meet and talk about autism awareness. Artwork will be auctioned on eBay, and proceeds will be donated to local and national autistic organizations.

Autism in Action Walk for Awareness will be Saturday, April 19.

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