When your child has autism
CHRISTY SWIFTYou've heard the skyrocketing statistics. What used to be one in 1,000 children diagnosed with autism is now one in 88. Among boys, the number is a staggering one in 54.
Published: February 2, 2013
Published: February 2, 2013
What is going on?
The truth is, we still don't have the answers, but research has shown that the increase is not entirely due to more effective diagnosing of this developmental disorder, which is characterized by varying degrees of difficulty with communication and social interaction as well as repetitive behaviors.
Studies are pointing to a combination of genetic and environmental factors that raise a person's risk of developing the disorder. Scientists have linked a number of gene changes to the disorder, but have yet to nail down the environmental piece.
People with autism spectrum disorder may be high functioning or completely nonverbal and unable to function on their own. Their official diagnosis may be autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder — otherwise specified as PPD-NOS — or Asperger's syndrome.
A small number of children, with intervention, appear to outgrow their diagnosis, or at least are able to compensate well enough that they no longer score on the spectrum.
Jamie Stayer is a prekindergarten special education teacher at Lake Placid Elementary. "We are definitely seeing an increase in our area," said Stayer, who has worked in the field for 30 years. "They'll be kind of loners. They can be very egocentric, still just thinking about themselves," she said. She added that tantrums and other difficult behaviors are also common.
Braden Mullins, of Lake Placid, was diagnosed with PPD-NOS at the age of 12 (he is now 21). His diagnosis was later changed to Asperger's syndrome. His mother, Tammy Mullins, recalled how until the age of 2, Braden was meeting and even exceeding milestones. Then, his progress abruptly halted.
"He wasn't talking as much. He wasn't making the advancements," said Mullins. Braden's doctors saw questionable traits, but not enough of them to qualify him for an autism diagnosis. "Back then doctors weren't looking for that type of disability," Mullins said.
For diagnostic purposes, doctors look at social, communication and behavior traits that point to a spectrum disorder. These traits are noticeable by age 3. Common social traits include lack of eye contact, a preference to be alone, resistance to touch and lack of empathy.
Most affected young children also have delayed or absent speech and make no attempt to communicate with gestures. They may repeat phrases without actually understanding them. An absence of pretend play or mimicry of adult activities is another red flag.
An autistic child may also exhibit odd behaviors, such as repetitive motions or a fascination with a moving object. They cling tightly to routines and may become agitated with change.
Pat Landress, director of student support services for the Highlands County School Board, pointed out that there are currently 90 diagnosed autistic children in Highlands County schools.
Landress explained that in the school system, children on the spectrum are given speech, occupational and physical therapy as needed. Communicative devices, such as a picture board, help teachers communicate to autistic students what activities are coming up next. Smaller classes and one-on-one assistance are also available for those who need it.
"We have some students that are completely in regular education and some kids in a full-time (special education) class. There is a huge range," said Landress.
Saundra Bass is the parent assistant for the Highlands County school district. "It's really extremely hard for parents around here," said Bass.
The local autism support group no longer meets, but she can help introduce families. Most local day cares won't accept autistic kids. "As far as any therapies and specialized treatments outside of school, that's where we're really lacking," said Bass.
More options are available for the 0-3 age range. Experts agree that early intervention can have a profound effect on outcomes. In Highlands County, Gulf Central Early Steps identifies and works with children in this age bracket who exhibit certain disabilities, including "spectrum-like" behavior. The program is free, with no income eligibility requirements, according to Family Resource Specialist Kim Barger.
Providers and support professionals work individually with these very small children and their families. Lynn Shea, a registered nurse in charge of provider support, explained that for a "typically appearing autistic 18-month-old," providers might interrupt his repetitive play in a way that would encourage him to react and communicate. Speech, occupational and physical therapy are available, too.
Not all of these children will go on to receive an autism diagnosis, but if they do, classes like Stayer's are available through the school system from age 3.
Some Highlands County families can also receive services from CARD (Center for Autism and Related Disorders) through the University of South Florida. Call (855) 345-2273 or visit www.centerforautism.com.
Sources: autismspeaks.org; mayoclinic.com