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The hub for diagnosis, therapy, training and support will be the first in the Panhandle.

For Aisha and Shanti Byrd, their son's autism diagnosis about a year ago wasn't the heartbreaker.

Rather, it was the long time it took to settle on the diagnosis and then to get help for now 3-year-old Aishan.

Their hope is that other parents will be spared from that pain of wondering what is wrong with their child and not being able to find quick answers and immediate therapy.

"We really didn't know what we were doing," Aisha said.

For the Byrds and other parents, a one-stop hub for diagnosis, therapy, training and support would be a crucial resource. Most importantly, it would lead to earlier therapy, which researchers say is critical for the development of language and social skills among children with the often-misunderstood disorder.

A $300,000 donation by local businessman Quint Studer and his wife, Rishy, has paved the way for just such a hub - a first for Northwest Florida.

Sacred Heart Hospital officials are conducting a nationwide search for a qualified behavior analyst who essentially will launch the center on the Sacred Heart campus and serve as its director. They hope to hire someone within the next month.

Eventually, organizers envision a separate building that will serve as a clinic, meeting place, training facility and research center for pediatricians, parents, children, teachers and anyone else connected to autism services or needs in the community.

Quint Studer says the facility will be "a center of excellence" that will attract people from throughout the Southeast as well as serve the needs of local parents and children.

"I think you can tell the value of a community by how well it helps maximize everyone's potential," said Studer, owner of health-care consulting company Studer Group.

Autism cases rising

When an autism specialist visited Pensacola last year, Studer said he asked about what could be done to better help parents and kids locally, and the expert suggested an autism center.

Studer, a former special education teacher, said he sees the center as a way to pull together and improve services already provided, and add those that are missing.

Debbie Bostic, president of Sacred Heart Hospital, said she believes that hiring the right center director will increase awareness and draw more autism specialists to the area.

"This person can really be a catalyst," Bostic said.

The push to create the center comes at a critical time.

The number of children diagnosed with autism has risen dramatically in recent years, said Susan Byram, executive director of the Autism Society of the Panhandle.

Fifteen years ago, there were about one or two autism cases for every 10,000 births. Now, one in 150 children has autism or autism-related disorders, she said.

The Sacred Heart autism center would provide training for pediatricians to help them spot early signs of the disorder. It would give them one place for referrals. Then it would provide individually tailored services for autistic children from infancy through their teenage years and even beyond.

Byram and others who work with autistic children say they know of too many cases where the diagnosis is missed over several doctors' visits.

At Pearl Nelson Child Development Center in Pensacola, which provides training and therapy for 260 children with various developmental needs, most of the referrals are for children who have the characteristics of autism or autism-related disorders.

"Late diagnosis is a problem," said MaryAnn Bickerstaff, children's service director.

Because the early signs of autism can be subtle delays in learning or social skills, parents and pediatricians sometimes shrug them off without seeking an expert opinion.

"The tendency is sometimes to pass it off as 'This is just this child's way,'" said Melba A. Darden, administrative director at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital.

Therapists helpful

Aisha Byrd said she had to quit two jobs because caring for Aishan is a full-time job. He sleeps about four hours a night.

"At one time, she didn't leave his side at all," said her husband, Shanti. "If she did, he'd cry all the time."

Aisha Byrd said she initially was irritated by her mother's repeated concerns about Aishan's delayed language skills and tendency to avoid eye contact.

As it turns out, those were early signals.

The Byrds are grateful to therapists at the Pearl Nelson Center, which has a contract with the Early Steps program, for their work in helping Aishan improve his language and behavior.

Early Steps provides programs and therapy for children with developmental problems, including autism, from birth through age 3. Aishan's therapy sessions amount to just two hours out of a very demanding week.

So the Byrds like the idea of a center that would give them more information and services in coping with Aishan and helping him as he grows older.

Byram said children with autism need long-term specialized treatment, beyond what schoolteachers can provide to a group of children with a wide range of developmental needs.

Autistic children need continual work on social skills as they prepare for independence.

And their parents, already coping with so much, deserve the help that an autism center can bring, she said.

"The parents who are already in the trenches are very excited about this," she said.