GARDNERVILLE - In 1999, around the time 8-year-old Alex Gumm was diagnosed with autism, the state Department of Education identified 273 Nevada children with the disorder.
By 2003, that number had reached 1,164. More than half those children - about 700 - are between 2 and 8 years old.
That includes 20 families in Carson Valley, some with more than one child diagnosed with autism.
"It's an epidemic," said Toni Gumm, 38, Alex's mother. "One in 166 people has autism. Parents are demanding answers and therapies, and the numbers keep climbing."
Autism is defined as a complex developmental disability that affects an individual in social interaction and communication. According to the Autism Society of America, 1.5 million Americans - children and adults - are thought to have autism.
Among the statistics is 21Ú2-year-old Dave Fauria, the brown-eyed, brown-haired son of Wendi and Garritt Fauria of Gardnerville who stopped smiling at his mother around his first birthday.
"When he was a year old, I started to get really worried," Wendi Fauria, 35, said. "We were sitting at the table, and he was looking through me. It was like somebody took him from me."
She took her baby to the doctor, who, she said, dismissed her as a "paranoid, first-time mom."
It took three months for doctors to diagnose Dave - valuable time that parents of autistic children say needs to be invested in early intervention.
Dave now spends up to eight hours a day in one-on-one therapy at the Faurias' home.
In June, when he is 3, Dave will start preschool through the Douglas County School District.
His mother, an accountant, created a spreadsheet to map out the 50 food supplements she gives Dave every day and schedules weekly treatments she believes remove the toxins from his system that aggravate the autism.
"His improvement has been awesome," she said.
Today, Dave has his smile back.
Dave's treatment is expensive, and all the costs are borne by the Faurias.
One of the roadblocks faced by parents of children with autism is that insurance companies don't pay for treatment.
That's why Gumm and Fauria helped organize a Carson Valley chapter of Families for Effective Autism Treatment. Last summer, the group held a fund-raiser at Fauria's parents' ranch in the foothills and raised $30,000.
They had hoped to put the money toward creation of autism treatment center for local families, but found that parents desperately needed financial help with treatment for their children.
The group is sponsoring an event from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. April 17 at Lampe Park in honor of Autism Awareness Month.
Gumm said everyone is invited to the free event, but she is requesting reservations to make sure each child receives a gift bag.
Alex is in second grade at Scarselli Elementary School. He attended a special program at University of Nevada, Reno that prepared him to go to regular school.
"Academically, he does well," Gumm said.
She and her husband, Allen, both teach in the school district.
"He can read at or above grade level. He has problems when you ask him questions," she said.
Alex also has challenges in social skills.
"He loves to be around other children. Sometimes he doesn't know how to go up to other kids and have conversations," she said.
Fauria and Gumm have both faced what they refer to as the "bad- parenting label" when their children act out in public.
"(Autistic children) look normal; people think they should be acting normal," Gumm said. "People think we are bad parents."
Sometimes she hands out small cards provided by the Autism Society that offer suggestions for interacting with someone who has autism and insight into how that person might behave.
Alex's sisters are Bailey, 9, and Carli, 4.
"The best therapy for this is his two doting sisters," Gumm said.
Alex loves to write and illustrate stories and cook. He plays basketball and takes tae kwon do.
"When he broke his first board, I just started to cry," Gumm said.
Gumm, Fauria and parent Phillip Stein helped organize FEAT as a support group for families.
"Our meetings aren't crying fests," Fauria said. "Our parents need the support of other parents. There is not a how-to book on dealing with autism."
"We want people to know there is hope, there is help," Fauria said. "Our hope is that if my husband and I work tirelessly with Dave, in a few years we will have a fully functioning adult. I look at Alex and think, if Dave turns out that well, it will be fine."
"I love Alex's innocence and his sense of humor," his mother said. "He makes us laugh every day."
"We've learned not to take for granted what they do," Fauria said.
If you go:
What: Families for Effective Autism Treatment's Autism Awareness Month Gathering
When: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. April 17
Where: Lampe Park in Gardnerville
Who: Open to the public.
Details: Because of strict dietary guidelines for some children, families are asked to bring their own picnics. Gluten- and casein-free desserts will be provided. The gathering will feature a bounce house and goodie bags for the children. Reservations are requested to have enough bags for them.
Call: (775) 782-4138.
On the Web:
Families for Effective Autism Treatment, Carson Valley
Autism Society of America
Children and adults with autism:
n May not understand what you say
n Appear deaf
n Be unable to speak or speak with difficulty
n Engage in repetitive behaviors
n Act upset for no apparent reason
n Appear insensitive to pain
n Appear anxious or nervous
n Dart away from you unexpectedly
n Engage in self-stimulating behaviors like hand flapping or rocking
Source: Autism Society of America