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Local school tackling the growing autism problem

LAKEWOOD RANCH — In 2002, Pinnacle Academy, which treats autism and related behavioral disorders in children from preschool through 12th grade, opened with 20 students and five teachers at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Catholic Church in the Whitfield Estates area.

Since moving to Lakewood Ranch in 2006, Pinnacle has grown to 90 students and 20 teachers, and school officials are considering their options for expansion.

Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States, with one in 94 boys on the autistic spectrum somewhere, said Dr. Kirstina Ordetx, the school’s director. One in 150 children is now likely to have some form of autism.

“We need to expand further,” said Ordetx, who has started a nonprofit organization to help families called the Center for Autism Resources and Education.

So what causes this devastating condition that can make children display a lack of interest in play or peers in lieu of an obsessive fixation on things that spin or whir?

“The truth is, we still don’t know,” Ordetx said. “There are many ideas out there.”

There’s a “leaky gut” theory that says there is a leakage in the GI tract and food excretion leaks into the child’s system and travels to the brain, affecting the way children think and process information. “It is being researched heavily,” Ordetx said.

A genetic theory is also considered. Pinnacle has treated triplets and twins with the disorder. There also are theories about free radicals in the air, electromagnetic activity and chlorine in water.

“Our families tend to be careful with what their children eat and come in contact with,” Ordetx said.

The most controversial theory is that vaccines containing mercury and given in one fell swoop can cause it. That theory was recently declared erroneous by a special federal court ruling on thousands of compensation cases.

An autism success story

On Friday at Pinnacle, Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes and Sarasota Police Chief Peter Abbott were on hand to communicate their respective counties’ support for Autism Awareness Month.

Abbott noticed a little boy in the crowd staring at him.

Abbott gave nearly 3-year-old Federico Hradek a conspiratorial wink.

Trying to wink back, Federico first blinked with both eyes. Then realizing that wasn’t right, he covered one of his eyes and blinked.

The gesture was exhilarating to Federico’s mother, Debby, who remembered when Federico was in a “bubble” of autism and was not interested in any communication.

With the help of the teachers at Pinnacle, Federico’s bubble has been pierced. Now, his mother and father, Dalibor, a Manatee County Rural Health Services’ obstetrician and gynecologist who delivers babies at Manatee Memorial Hospital and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, are working hard to keep the bubble deflated.

“He lost eye contact,” Debby Hradek said of her son at 16 months. “He would get so engrossed in spinning wheels and ceiling fans that he didn’t know we were there.”

The couple, who lived in Lima, Ohio, then, knew that something was going on. Their pediatrician said, “Don’t automatically think the A word,’ ” Hradek said. “‘He’s just developmentally behind.’”

But when Debby picked up her husband at the airport one day in the fall of 2007 and Federico failed to recognize him, Debby had seen enough.

“You don’t know me but I have a nephew with autism and I heard you could help,” Debby’s sister, Lakewood Ranch attorney Jo Ann Koontz of Icard Merrill, asked a fellow attorney on the phone that autumn of 2007. She had heard he had a child at Pinnacle.

“Call this number now,” the man said. “Don’t delay.”

The next day, Debby Hradek and Federico were on a plane to Lakewood Ranch.

Ordetx agreed to take in her son immediately. Time is of the essence. The earlier teachers begin to work with autistic students, the better chance to change behaviors, Ordetx said.

“People consider the brain is more elastic during the early years,” Ordetx said.

“But we have made amazing gains with clients who are 18. However, the earlier you get in there before habits form, the better.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917.

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