Sioux Falls, S.D. Over the last decade, the number of children diagnosed with autism in the United States has nearly doubled.
Right now one in every 68 children falls somewhere on the autism spectrum; healthcare professionals say that is in part do to an increase in the disorder, but also reflects a better system of early diagnosis and treatment, helping people with autism to better live a full, successful life.
Alana Thelen is your average 8th grader at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sioux Falls.
“School is great! School is a place where you learn; I love to learn, a lot,” Alana said.
Watching her in the classroom, it’s easy to tell she's a very good student.
“Mostly I get A’s, there are sometimes that I get B’s and C’s, but as long as it’s a C+ it’s OK,” Alana said.
What you may not notice, is Alana has autism.
“Alana is at that higher functioning level; she's able to attend classes, she's able to go and initiate conversations with others, even though that's really hard for her,” Lifescape Licensed Clinical Psychologist Dr. Aimee Deliramich said.
Deliramich says Alana is a shining example of a successful student with autism. At 14 she is very articulate and is able to strongly communicate her thoughts. But this wasn't always the case.
“For the longest time I just wanted her to call me mom; it took until she was six to do that,” Alana’s Mom Letty Thelen said.
Alana's mom reveals just how far Alana has come.
"From 18 months to six years, she didn't functionally communicate or look at me, she would go into a trance, hit her head a lot, didn't potty train until she was six," Letty said.
All behaviors that made Alana's diagnosis of autism difficult to accept.
"I didn't want her to have autism. I went through a long grieving period where I didn't want to accept it; it was really hard for a number of years," Letty said.
With the help of the Sioux Falls School District's early childhood programs, Alana was able to get diagnosed and begin therapy right away.
"I think early detection is key; the sooner that we can start working with children and start working with their families, the better the outcomes we can have," Sioux Falls School District Elementary Special Services Supervisor Brenda Brenard said.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, so the symptoms and therapies will look different for every child.
"Anything from occupational therapy, speech therapy, incontinence therapy, feeding therapy...all of these services are available to children depending on what needs a child has," Deliramich said.
Research shows starting these therapies early is crucial in a child's future success.
"For some students, early on they may appear to have a lot of delays and then you have these times where you have some break troughs and they make great steps and great gains," Brenard said.
It's why healthcare professionals say you can never predict what a child's future may hold.
"From give to 10 she changed so much, if I made goals when she was diagnosed, I would have been way off," Letty said.
"I think the worst thing we can do is start to restrict our thoughts on where children can be. We really need to keep our minds and thoughts open to being sure that children have opportunities to find their success," Brenard said.
To start that journey, autism therapists say acceptance is key.
"So they can get to the point where they're celebrating the child and all of their strengths and being able to really work to identify those strengths," Deliramich said.
"As I've come to terms with the diagnosis, that's what makes my outlook brighter...now that I have more perspective, now Alana is 14, I can't imagine her any other way, autism is so much a part of her," Letty said.
Alana says she believes people with autism can have the same dreams and goals as everyone else.
"Maybe some people don't see that they're people too, maybe they think that they won't meet the expectations other people will: I think they're wrong," Alana said.
"Really the possibilities are endless, when it comes to an individual with autism and looking at their future and everything they can do, look at their interests and what they enjoy doing," Deliramich said.
Just like most kids her age, Alana says her future is wide open.
"You can be anything you want. I've got a lot of things in my mind...maybe I want to become a singer...maybe i should become an author, I can't decide that yet," Alana said.
Whatever she chooses, with confidence like Alana's, she certainly has a bright future ahead.
It's important to note that every person with autism is unique and will have varying communication and functional living skills.
But healthcare professionals say with the right therapy, even a non-verbal person with autism can learn to effectively communicate using electronic aids and still become a contributing, successful member of society.