POQUOSON — Krystiann Henton is 18 years old but gets along better with her younger cousins than people her own age.
"I knew deep down inside that she wanted to make friends. She didn't know how," her mother, Sue Henton said.
She hopes that enrolling Krystiann, who has Asperger syndrome, in a new research study at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk will help with her daughter's social isolation.
The study is part of the medical school's new Autism Spectrum Disorders Program for Older Adolescents and Young Adults. The program has three components: It's designed to link young people like Krysti to local resources, to conduct research into autism and to educate the community, said Dr. Maria Urbano, a psychiatrist who is the program director. When patients enroll, they have access to neuropsychological testing, psychiatric assessments and perhaps art therapy or clinicial studies.
Asperger syndrome is part of the autism spectrum disorder. People with Asperger have a normal intellectual capacity but struggle with social interaction, communication and preoccupations, according to aspergersyndrome.org.
Autism, which affects one in 110 children and one in 70 boys, is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S., according to Autism Speaks.
Much of the focus on autism is early intervention, Urbano said.
"People focus on where they can make the biggest difference. The thought is if you can get these kids early enough, you have a better chance of improving their functioning in the long run," she said.
But it can't stop there. Eventually, children become adults and need to learn life and vocational skills.
Urbano has spent the past year researching what services are available locally for adolescents and young adults with autism so she could offer referrals. Resources include social skills groups in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. There are few therapists who have experience dealing with adolescents with autism, she said.
"It's becoming more and more apparent that the cohort of kids that got the attention 10 years ago are growing up, and there aren't really any resources for them in this area," Urbano said.
What's needed is vocational skill-building, she said. The Department of Rehabilitative Services, which helps people with various conditions, including autism, achieve a greater level of employment or independence, is turning people away because it's short on resources.
An increase in applicants for DRS services has prompted the department to institute a waiting list that's about 1,900 names long, commissioner Jim Rothrock said.
But the department is increasing its Project SEARCH program, from eight sites to 10, to put students with special needs at job sites to help them transition to the working world, Rothrock said.
Another employment opportunity on the Peninsula is through The Arc of the Virginia Peninsula, which employs people with disabilities, including those with autism. The Arc also offers a day support program for those who have Medicaid waivers.
The Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board accepts people with autism, mostly those who qualify for Medicaid, into day support programs and plans to create a specialized day support program for people with autism, executive director Chuck Hall said.
"We know we have 26 people who need the service, and they actually have health coverage for the service," Hall said. "We just need to find the space on the campus."
As for research, Urbano is looking to enroll people with autism ages 14 to 25 in a study of a drug used to treat tuberculosis. In studies involving mice, the drug helped mice that avoided other mice become more interactive.
Krystiann is a likely candidate for that study, her mother said.
Teachers knew something was different about Krysti when she entered preschool. At first, her pediatrician thought she had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Then in sixth grade, she was diagnosed with Asperger and enrolled in special-education services.
"We didn't really notice the Aspergers part of it until she was in middle school. That's when her social anxiety crept up," her mother said. "Until then, we just thought she was shy."
Like other Asperger patients, Krysti goes through stages where she fixates on things. When she was younger, she'd collect figurines from the latest Disney movie and play with them for hours. Now, she finds characters on the Internet, prints them out and laminates them. For the last year or so, she has been "obsessed" with the movie "Despicable Me," and even wrote a sequel, her mother said.
"I have a really good imagination, so I could bring something amazing to the Disney storyboards," Krysti said.
Sue Henton hopes Krysti will hold down a job and live on her own one day.
"Probably not in the stages that most kids do," her mother said. "I think it will be much later for her to be able to live on her own."
More on autism
Learn more about Eastern Virginia Medical School's new program at http://www.evms.edu/autism.