PARIS — April Kenney remained jovial during a meeting on a rainy November night after a survey determined that her stress level was the highest among participants in a stress management seminar at the local library.
Kenney later said she was a bit shocked that she was so stressed, but that's expected for a woman with two sons, ages 2 and 9. Kenney's older son, Zyquanne, has autism. He was diagnosed about seven years ago.
"It adds to (the stress) because we have communication issues," Kenney said. "But I think any parent has a certain amount of stress that somebody without kids might not understand."
Kenney said she expects a monthly support group in Paris for parents of children with autism to help alleviate some of her stress. The group held its first meeting in October at the Paris-Bourbon County Public Library.
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The autism group in Paris is one of few in Central Kentucky.
"There aren't a lot," said Sara Spragens, president of the Autism Society of the Bluegrass.
There are other groups in Kentucky, including in Letcher, Johnson and Powell counties, according to the Kentucky Autism Training Center's Web site, which is operated by the University of Louisville.
Spragens said some cities start meetings but are not able to maintain attendance. Sometimes parents have trouble finding childcare.
Spragens said the Autism Society of the Bluegrass, which holds monthly meetings at Saint Michael's Episcopal Church in Lexington, has free childcare. But, even in a city the size of Lexington, there are usually only about 20 to 25 people who attend. More than 500 people, however, participate in online discussions, Spragens said.
"That is really one of our most useful services," Spragens said.
Autism support groups are especially needed in Kentucky because there are few medical professionals who specialize in autism, Spragens said.
"Because there are not that many services out there, we rely on each other for information," she said.
A representative from the Kentucky Special Parent Involvement Network, a non-profit that promotes programs to enhance the quality of life for people with disabilities and their families, led the stress management seminar in Paris.
Kenney said she hoped more parents would join the group.
"It's a very positive, productive thing if people actually participate," she said. "We all need to know that somebody else is going through it."
Other parents would understand, for example, that Kenney can't get her son dressed to leave the house too soon or he'll "pace the floor" and "flip out."
"We have major issues when I say we're going outside and we don't go out," she said.
Kenney said some parents keep their children on a stringent schedule to help them cope.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.
A 2006 CDC study found that one in 110 children in the United States has autism disorders. Following that study, public service announcements on television featuring celebrities such as singer Toni Braxton became prevalent.
Kellie Scott, a Paris-Bourbon County Public Library employee, saw actress Holly Robinson Peete talking about her son's autism on television. She also noticed, over the past few years, that more and more people were visiting the library looking for information about autism.
Scott knew a few people with autistic children, including a woman to whom she'd delivered books for five years as part of the library's mobile outreach program.
Scott said she admired the woman's patience and eagerness to learn about the disorder.
"She's extraordinary with this child," Scott said.
Scott, who does not have a child with autism, started advertising for a support group at the library.
"I just felt like it was something I needed to do," she said
More than 10 parents attended the first meeting in October, Scott said.
Scott said the parents will determine topics for each meeting. Some meetings will have speakers. During other meetings, parents will be able to talk freely about issues related to their children. Meetings are open to anyone from any county.
"I just think that it's something that only people who have a child with (autism) can possibly understand what that person is going through," Scott said.