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Something was different about Connor Smith. When he was just a baby, Maggie and Randy Smith of Ceres could tell Conner wasn't like their other two children.

"He played funny," recalled Maggie. "He didn't play with the other children. He jabbered a lot."

When he was 18 months old, Connor could be heard giggling alone in bed.

As he grew older he wouldn't ask his mother for something; instead he'd grab her by the hand and take her to an item he wanted and let her fetch it. "I was used as a tool," said Maggie.

"He just wasn't progressing socially or communication wise," remembered Mrs. Smith.

When someone suggested that their son may have autism, the Smiths ended up at the Valley Mountain Regional Center. Connor underwent six months of evaluation. He was then diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

"I cried for three days," said Maggie. "It was a devastating blow when you find out it's something you can't cure or fix. It is a lifelong disability. It was very hard."

Autism is the most commonly diagnosed childhood disease. Approximately one in 150 are diagnosed and it's more common in boys than girls.

Experts can tell when a child has disorders by studying behavior, said Smith.

"They look at how they play. Autistic kids have no real good sense of what it's like to be in your shoes so they are very self-centered. They don't automatically know how to share. They have to be taught what's expected socially.

"All these kids look like regular kids, unlike Downs Syndrome children, but act kind of odd," she said.

Connor, now 11, was greatly helped through early intervention. After an afternoon of testing she was given a report and what she could expect going forward. She looked at the educational options for her son and chose an in-home early intensive behavior training (EIBT).

She turned to the Central Valley Autism Project, which contracts with local school districts to work with children. Tutors spent 40 hours a week with Connor in his home.

"They taught him how to do everything, big and little, colors, how to draw, to play, take turns, how to wait, increasing his attention span, how to get along with people and have a conversation, play board games."

The effort made a world of difference.

"It was nothing short of a miracle. They took this little babbling blob that ran around from thing to thing to thing to a talking, walking pay attention child."

After the effort poured into Conner, the Smiths were able to take their first relaxing vacation when he was six. "We enjoyed it because we weren't busy chasing him around all over the place."

The affects of autism are still going to be with Connor, she said.

"Some things are just still really hard for him to understand."

Katie Brown, a Westport mom of a son with autism and who is the publicity chair of the Central Valley Autism Speaks Project, stresses that early invention is "crucial."

"My 4 year old son (Edward Mendes), was diagnosed at age 2 and has made wonderful progress since we got early intervention," said Brown. "My personal goal is to raise awareness so people can get the help they need early enough. Autism can be helped if intervention is made within the first five years of a child's life."

Early intervention is key, stresses Brown.

"It's amazing what those programs do. Between the ages of 2 and 5 is the best time to intervene. Studies show the brain absorbs the most between 1 and 5 years of age."

Edward is now in a special kindergarten autism class at Adkison Elementary School in Ceres.

Many doctors are now looking for signs of autism during well baby check-ups, said Brown. Doctors ask questions about the baby's development to see if there are signs. In Brown's case, her son didn't have a vocabulary.

She warns parents to be open if a doctor suggests their child has autism.

"The first step is taking a doctor's advice and get early intervention. I've heard parents be in denial, not wanting to admit there's something wrong with their child. When the doctor suggested it to me it was like, 'What?' Then I started to read the materials and it all made sense. The main thing is don't be in denial."

Today Edward has a great vocabulary and is considered high functioning. While he can operate a computer, he can't tie his shoes.

Other children are low functioning. Some with autism never speak. Others display echolalia, or what Brown calls the "broken record syndrome."

Brown notes that early intervention will lead to a child being in a program based on his or her individual needs.

Brown and Maggie Smith have formed a friendship rooted in their experiences with autism. Because Conner is much older than Edward, Maggie is able to share things of "what to expect when my son gets older," said Brown.

The greatest frustration for Brown is the public's lack of understanding of autism. Her son's autism has led to him throwing temper tantrums in public.

"For me personally, the most frustrating thing is dealing with comments that people make in public when your child is misbehaving. People tend to misjudge you as a parent... when your son throws a tantrum. As a parent I can't help that. Once my son was acting up and I heard a customer and a clerk say, 'I would never let my son behave that way.' It's not within a parent's control."

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With a goal of raising funds and awareness, the Central Valley Autism Speaks will host its first annual Walk Now for Autism on Sunday, Oct. 18, at MJC West Campus.

"It's a day for families to get toegther, have fun, raise money and walk if you want to," said Katie Brown, publicity chair for Central Valley Autism Speaks. "The main thing is raising awareness and getting money to support the scientific research for better care."

Registration begins at 9 a.m. and the walk begins at 10:30 a.m. and runs until 1 p.m. Volunteers are needed.

The local group has raised $80,000 in pledges and donations and hopes to raise a total of $100,000. Nationally walks have raised over $25 million.

"It's not a relay or competition. There will be a lot of entertainment, bounce houses, face painting, a live band is coming in from Merced, and there will be resource booths."

Walk New for Autism events is the main source of fundraising for Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy group. Of every dollar raised, 78 percent goes back to Autism Speaks for research purposes.

While it's the fastest growing childhood disorders, autism receives less than five percent of all government research dollars. Locally the money will help support autism research at U.C. Davis.