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One family's struggle with autism

NBC's Dawn Fratangelo reports on the growing number of Americans struggling with the silence and secrets of autism.

It’s a typical morning at the McGuire’s in Chicago. Then again, nothing has really been typical for two years now — not since Danny was diagnosed with autism.  Danny's mother Karen McGuire fights off tears when she talks about how hard it's been on her family. “Every day is a fight,” she says.

Karen and her husband, Dan, seem to be fighting for just about everything — like a better pre-school program with therapy known to help autistic children. By law, the state must provide an appropriate and free education for Danny. One offer from the district, a school more than an hour away, is something unacceptable to the McGuires.

“This is putting a three-year-old, non-verbal child on a bus — who’d never been — never done that before. I couldn’t do it,” added Karen.

So, a revolving door of therapists comes to the house, using something called “applied behavior analysis” or A.B.A. And it’s working. Danny is using words and motor skills he didn’t have a year ago. But the cost last year, out of their own pocket, was $60,000.

That’s more than Dan makes as a police officer. So, colleagues and friends hold fundraisers.  Without those fundraisers, Dan McGuire says they would “absolutely not” have been able to give Danny the therapy he’s getting.

The McGuires are struggling in a system overburdened by an increase in the number of children being diagnosed with autism. Most experts believe it’s not due to more children being born with autism, but to greater awareness at earlier ages.

Still, there is no agreement on how much school districts nationwide should spend on autistic children or the type of therapy. Some offer better programs for toddlers, while others concentrate on pre-school and beyond.

One public school in Brick Township, N.J., is deciding to meet the growing demand by increasing autism classes from just 4 to 14 in a few years time

“We really hope to show other school districts that you can offer rather intense and successful programs for these children and offer them close to home in a mainstream class,” said Mary Ann Ceres, assistant school superintendent of Brick Township.

But with parents moving from out of state and even to Canada, the school has no more room.

Meanwhile, the McGuires are considering a drastic move: a separation.

Karen and their three children would re-locate an hour away so Danny can attend the public school that offers free therapy. “And that’s what he needs. He needs a chance to thrive. And I know he can," says Karen.

The McGuires are one family, doing all it can to unlock an autistic world.