Jacy Haas is still learning to deal with the outbursts of her son, Charles, 7, who has autism. But she has trouble getting others to understand what it's like to be in her shoes.
"It's really hard," said Haas, who lives in Keymar in rural western Carroll County. "You go out in public, and people look at you like you can't control your child."
Haas is one of the organizers of Carroll County's first support group for families of children with autism, a disorder that impairs parts of the brain responsible for social interaction and communication skills.
The group will hold an organizational meeting at 7:30 p.m. today at Carroll Springs School, 495 S. Center St., Westminster. The school system's Department of Special Education is helping form the group.
The organizers plan to use meetings to share strategies for coping with autism, to hold presentations about recent research and to plan outings suitable for families with autistic children.
Sharon Glass of Westminster, whose son, Taylor, 5, has autism, said people outside of her immediate family often have difficulty grasping what is involved in having a child with the disorder.
"Unless you have a child with autism, it's really hard to understand the dynamics that go with that," said Glass, another organizer of the group.
The Autism Society of America (ASA) says children and adults with autism have trouble relating to the outside world. In some cases, people with autism display aggressive or self-injurious behavior, use repeated body movements such as flapping their hands, or develop unnatural attachments to objects.
Charles Haas carries around old cards from his birthday, Christmas or Valentine's Day until the next holiday or special occasion rolls around, and he gets a new batch.
Although they might ignore physical pain and sound, people with autism are often sensitive to changes in the environment or changes in routine. Charles Haas insists on having his food ground and fed to him by his mother, as if he were an infant, Jacy Haas said.
Harry Fogle, director of special education for county schools. said the number of Carroll students identified with autism has increased from two to 38 in the past five years. The school system recently bolstered training for teachers who have children with autism in their classes.
More than 500,000 people in the United States have autism or some form of pervasive developmental disorder, according to the ASA.
"Students with autism need highly structured environments," Fogle said. "They need environments that are not irritable, that are stimulating, but not at the same time overstimulating."
People with autism can vary greatly in the severity of symptoms and in the ability to function in the outside world, he said.
"Many students with autism are capable students," he said. "They have high ability and, given proper structure and support, they can become highly functional adults."
Haas said she helped organize the group because she wants to be sure her son receives the best education possible.
She said she hopes the group will serve another purpose for the parents involved: "Just to have friends with similarities, so that we're not always the quote-unquote `bad parents.'"