PORTLAND (AP) – Maine-based Web sites and online groups are drawing global audiences with information, blogs and Internet communities revolving around autism.

Ginger Taylor of Brunswick runs a blog devoted to autism. Her 6-year-old son, Chandler, is autistic.

Shannon and Steve Johnson of Harpswell, whose 13-year-old son, Wynn, is autistic, operate the www.foggyrock.com site that acts like a Facebook for members of the autism community. Each member has a home page for posting blog entries, photos and information about autism.

The sites are just two examples of how Maine families with autistic children are sharing information and stories about the mysterious disorder.

When the federal government this month conceded that vaccines worsened a health condition in a Georgia girl named Hannah Poling and triggered autism-like symptoms, Taylor posted information and blogs on her site about the case. In the days after the case became public, daily visits to her www.adventuresinautism.com rose from 350 to 1,700.

Her lengthy posts prompted some readers to comment online and others to send her e-mails.

“The Internet is a great tool for all the debate you can have,” said Taylor, who often blogs about medical studies and treatments for her son. “I don’t know what they did before it.”

Autism is a brain development disorder that can cause repetitive behaviors and impair social interaction and communication.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism grows, so has the need for information about the disorder. About 1 in 150 children have autism or related disorders, according to an estimate from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Maine, the number of reported cases among people ages 3 to 21 rose from 594 in 2000 to 1,990 in 2007, according to state education officials. Similar rate increases have been posted nationally, but it’s not clear whether autism is becoming more prevalent or whether awareness has grown.

Parents of autistic children are increasingly turning to the Internet for answers and support.

The FoggyRock site – a reference to the uphill climb autism poses – has attracted nearly 700 members, some from as far away as England and Australia, said Shannon Johnson, who is the editor of the site.

Members can communicate with each other, download photos, blog, access research or get links about other autism groups.

The site aims to be a comforting place for families whose lives change dramatically when their children are diagnosed with autism.

Often, one spouse leaves a career to care for the child, as Johnson, a former teacher, did. Many throw themselves into researching and trying different behavioral approaches.

For families in more remote areas, where don’t know anyone else in their situation, the Internet can serve as a lifeline, said Cathy Dionne, program director of the Autism Society of Maine and the mother of an autistic teenager. Dionne regularly visits the sites and feels uplifted after reading posts.

“A lot of families especially in rural Maine – we’re talking Aroostook County, Washington County – their connection is their computer,” Dionne said.

Information from: Portland Press Herald, http://www.pressherald.com

AP-ES-03-23-08 1124EDT

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