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DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance



A reader of this column in the Lake Crystal Tribune (Minn.) told me about Margo and Monte Ahrendsen of Oxford Junction, Iowa.

They have two teenagers with disabilities: 16-year-old Doug has autism, and 14-year-old Kevin was born with Down syndrome.

Autism, or Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), affects at least one American child in 500. No cause or cure has been found. The National Institute of Mental Health website says that children with ASD always show repetitive behaviors or interests, and have deficits in verbal and non-verbal communication, and social interaction. Down syndrome is caused by a defective cell division in an embryo, which creates three instead of two No. 21 chromosomes. It affects about 350,000 Americans and is the nation's leading cause of mental retardation.

The Ahrendsens also have an 18-year-old son, Joel.

Doug (with ASD) has problems with communication,” said Margo Ahrendsen in a telephone interview. “He doesn't initiate conversation when wanting something. He's affected in so many ways by autism, with sensory, communication, and social problems.”

Ahrendsen said that Doug as a toddler communicated by shrieking, screaming, and kicking, usually due to frustration from wanting something and not knowing how to get it. Over a two-year period then, the Ahrendsens hired a California autism expert and others to help Doug. He began talking at age 6. Today he doesn't communicate well, but talks enough to meet his basic needs.

As for Kevin, “he's quite a character,” said Ahrendsen. “He's in ninth grade, is in Future Farmers of America and 4H, and he shows cattle.” The Ahrendsens grow corn, soybeans, and hay on their farm.

For the most part, having [two children with disabilities] is all we've known,” said Ahrendsen. “Just because they have different abilities doesn't make them any different. We treat them like regular kids. We figure they can be self-sufficient and one day take care of themselves. We teach them daily living skills, such as chores, doing laundry, dishes, and setting the table.”

The Ahrendsens think a lot about the future. Margo, who is 55, wants to get her boys through high school and working. From there, they can live independently or in a group home. “We'll have to set up trusts for them,” she said. “You have to look at what's going to happen to them after you aren't around.”

For more, see www.danieljvance.com or www.nimh.nih.gov