HERRIN - Eight-year-old Baleigh Cravens lives her life like any other child her age.
She struggles with math at Herrin Elementary School, fights with 6-year-old brother, Hunter, and enjoys playing with friends at the nearby park.
But her life hasn't always been so normal. Baleigh lost her ability to make eye contact and speak between the ages of 18 months and two years, and her vocal abilities didn't resurface until she turned four, about a year after doctors diagnosed a case of mild autism.
"It's tiresome, but it's also exciting," Baleigh's mother Vanessa Cravens said of raising a child with autism. "I love being a parent, and I wouldn't trade her for the world. She's a special child; she's happy, and she's always smiling."
Vanessa says she's luckier than many, as Baleigh's only suffers from a mild case of the disorder and can attend public school and live a largely normal life. Others aren't as fortunate, she said.
In 2006, Vanessa and her sister decided to support Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, where Baleigh and other autistic children from the region receive counseling, aid and education. They organized a fundraiser dinner and have collected about $25,000 for the center in three years.
"I try to be the best advocate I can be for my daughter," Vanessa said in regards to the fundraisers, as well as working with schools on ensuring the best environment for Baleigh and her peers. "I fight for the things she needs."
Baleigh is far from alone. Statistics show 1 percent of all children born nationwide have autism, and Andrew Cuvo, director of the center at SIUC, said there's nothing to indicate the rate in Southern Illinois differs.
He recommends parents have their children screened between ages 18 months and two years.
"The younger we get to them, the earlier we can begin intervention," he said.