As a parent you never want to believe that there may be a problem with your precious bundle of joy. If you do have an inkling that there may be an issue, however, autism experts say that you should act sooner rather than later. When it comes to autism, catching it early, ideally by the age of eighteen months, can make a huge difference. Early intervention and treatment can reduce the effects and help your child learn, grow and thrive.
As a parent, or even a caregiver, you are in the best position to spot the earliest warning signs. If you are the primary caregiver, you observe your child more than anyone else. Your observations and experiences can be invaluable when it comes to early diagnosis and subsequent treatment of autism or any of the autism spectrum disorders. The key is to educate yourself so you know what’s normal and what’s not and then trust your gut. If you think something isn’t quite right take action. Start with your pediatrician and from there ask for an evaluation or a specialists if you feel there is still a problem.
Recent research conducted by Autism Speaks confirms that appropriate screening can determine whether a child is at risk for autism as young as one year. While every child develops differently, we also know that early treatment improves outcomes, often dramatically. Studies show, for example, that early intensive behavioral intervention improves learning, communication and social skills in young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
The M-CHAT screening (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) can help you determine if a professional should evaluate your child. This simple online autism screen takes only a few minutes. The M-CHAT is validated for screening toddlers between 16 and 30 months of age, to assess risk for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The M-CHAT can be scored in less than two minutes. Scoring instructions can be downloaded from http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwpsy/faculty/robins.htm or www.firstsigns.org. Children who fail more than 3 items total or 2 critical items (particularly if these scores remain elevated after the follow-up interview) should be referred for diagnostic evaluation by a specialist trained to evaluate ASD in very young children.
While autism spectrum disorders have gained recent notoriety and been the subject of much scientific research, it is not a new disorder. Men and women from across the world and throughout history have shown evidence of having an autism spectrum disorder. Some of these people have names that are highly recognizable and have accomplished great success in their field. Some have made amazing discoveries and been political leaders while others have shifted our way of thinking about math, the universe and science. These well-known people can serve as positive role models for children with autism on their way to adulthood.
While there was no evaluation process during the era of many of these famous people, there is evidence that points toward autism or one of the autism spectrum disorders.
- Albert Einstein – This German-born physicists who developed the Theory of Relativity was said to have difficulty with social interactions, and had tactile sensitivity. While his intelligence was well above average, he had difficulty with communication and language. Einstein most notably had difficulties with relationship and social interactions. These difficulties did not hold him back. In fact, his unique view of life is one of the hallmarks of who he is remembered as today.
- Thomas Jefferson – This famous Founding Father of the United States of America, former President of the United States and principle author of the Declaration of Independence was said to have been autistic or have Asperger’s syndrome. Norm Ledgin, author of Diagnosing Jefferson, indicates that Jefferson was shy, had an inability to relate to others, had difficulties in public speaking and was sensitive to loud noises. He was said to be very eccentric and had some social interaction difficulties along with difficulties understanding interpersonal relationships.
- Michelangelo – This Italian sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer of the High Renaissance was said to have a single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills. These are all hallmarks of being on the autism spectrum. Michelangelo was also obsessive and followed repetitive routines. He was an artistic genius who possibly would have been on the spectrum if he lived today.
- Emily Dickinson – This American poet was regarded as one of the greatest poets. Her poems were in a number of ways unconventional for their time. Dickinson is one of the writers discussed in the 2010 book Writers on the spectrum: how autism and Asperger syndrome have influenced literary writing by literary academic Julie Brown.
Dog owners live by the adage that, “Dogs are man’s best friend.” To many this is a gross understatement. Dogs go far beyond a best friend for many people in our society. Some dogs assist owners who are blind, while others help people who suffer from anxiety and depression. Still others visit nursing homes and hospitals as a part of their “careers” as assistance dogs. But of all the jobs that dogs can have, being an autism assistance dog is by far the most unique. Unlike the guide dog who helps with physical tasks, the autism assistance dog is there more for emotional support. Project Chance, an autism service dog organization, explains that dogs are excellent companions. “By simply being there, a solid, sound and reassuring companion, dogs can help ease sensory overload, which is a common challenge for those with autism.” Let’s look at the benefits of autism assistance dogs.
- Trained assistance dogs can be the link between a child with autism and the world around them.This can increase both independence and social interactions for a child who struggles in these areas.
- The kindness and gentleness of the autism assistance dog helps the child by just being there – no matter what sounds, gestures or repetitive motions the child is engaging in.
- Assistance dogs can keep children safe from “bolting” in public or getting lost. Most children with autism have no concept of personal safety, and can wander outdoors and into traffic.
- Dogs can help with repetitive and injurious behaviors. Dogs can be tasked-trained to use touch intervention, as well as pressure intervention and mobility assistance when these repetitive or self-injurious behaviors occur.
- Dogs are social animals and can help autistic children brave social situations that they would normally be fear producing or have high anxiety around.
- Dogs can improve quality of sleep. Assistance dogs provide a certain level of comfort that can often improve a a child’s ability to sleep more throughout the night. They become a comfort item that will help with sleep and anxiety.
- Dogs are calming animals. Autistic children who work with dogs have been documented to feel less anger and experience fewer acts of aggression compared to the time before receiving an assistance dog.
- Studies have found that children with assistance doigs also increase their level of vocabulary since they tend to feel more comfortable speaking with a dog.
Talk to your therapists about the options available for pet assisted therapy for your child.
ABA is the acronym for Applied Behavior Analysis. Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the use of techniques and principles such as to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior. Let’s take a closer look at what this is and how it may impact your child in a positive manner.
What is ABA? Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions based upon the principles of learning theory to improve socially significant behaviors to a meaningful degree, and to demonstrate that the interventions employed are responsible for the improvement in behavior (Baer, Wolf & Risley, 1968; Sulzer-Azaroff & Mayer, 1991).
How can ABA help your child? ABA methods are used to support persons with autism in at least six ways:
- to increase behaviors (reinforcement procedures increase on-task behavior, or social interactions);
- to teach new skills (systematic instruction and reinforcement procedures teach functional life skills, communication skills, or social skills);
- to maintain behaviors (teaching self control and self-monitoring procedures to maintain and generalize job-related social skills);
- to generalize or to transfer behavior from one situation or response to another (from completing assignments in the resource room to performing as well in the mainstream classroom);
- to restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviors occur
- to reduce interfering behaviors (self injury)
What does Research say about ABA? A number of completed studies have demonstrated that ABA techniques can produce improvements in communication, social relationships, play, self care, school and employment. These studies involved age groups ranging from preschoolers to adults. Results for all age groups showed that ABA increased participation in family and community activities. (Read More)
What kind of Improvement or Progress can you expect to see with ABA? While children and parents can see meaningful changes over the course of many years, keep in mind that this therapy does not work overnight. Some learners do acquire skills quickly. But typically, this rapid progress happens in just one or two particular skill areas such as reading, while much more instruction and practice is needed to master another skill area such as interacting with peers.
In the world of special education there are many buzz words and phrases thrown around that people “in the know” understand but tend to confuse the general public. “On the spectrum” is one such phrase. Does this mean that a child or adult has autism? Does it mean they have Aspergers? What does it mean exactly? Let’s take a moment to examine this.
“On the spectrum” usually refers to the specific set of behavioral and developmental problems and the challenges associated with autism spectrum disorder. A diagnosis of ASD means that your child’s communication, social, and play skills are affected in some way. To add to the confusion, experts use different names to describe ASD. These include:
- Pervasive developmental disorder (PDD)
- Pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS)
- Asperger syndrome
- High functioning autism
All of these names fall under the term ASD. We use the terms autism, autism spectrum disorder, or “on the spectrum.”
Professionals and laypeople alike refer to children who are on the spectrum meaning they have some form or degree of autism. Where your child falls on this spectrum means they exhibit different behavioral patterns. Classic autism, or autistic disorder, is the most severe of the autism spectrum disorders. Milder variants are Asperger’s Syndrome, sometimes called high-functioning autism, and PDD-NOS, or atypical autism. According to the Autism Spectrum Resource Center, only 20% of people on the autism spectrum have classic autism. The overwhelming majority fall somewhere on the milder range of the spectrum.
In order to determine whether your child has autism, a related autism spectrum disorder, or another developmental condition, clinicians look carefully at the way your child socializes, communicates, and behaves. Diagnosis is based on the patterns of behavior that are revealed during evaluation. The team of specialists involved in diagnosing your child may include:
- Child psychologists
- Child psychiatrists
- Speech pathologists
- Developmental pediatricians
- Pediatric neurologists
- Physical therapists
- Special education teachers
Determining where your child falls “on the spectrum” is not a brief process. There is no single medical test that can diagnose it definitively; instead, in order to accurately pinpoint your child’s problem, multiple evaluations and tests are necessary.
Whether your child has been diagnosed with autism or you merely know of someone who has it, chances are you have questions. You probably have a lot of questions. In an effort to increase awareness during this Autism Awareness Month here are some of the most common questions surrounding this disorder.
- What is Autism? Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. Depending upon the child and the severity of the disorder there are usually difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
- How Common is Autism? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identify around 1 in 68 American children as on the autism spectrum–a ten-fold increase in prevalence over the last 40 years. It is estimated that 1.5 million Americans may be affected with autism. Also, recent studies suggest boys are more susceptible than girls to developing autism.
- What are the Most Common Characteristics of Autism? Every person with autism is an individual, and like all individuals, has a unique personality and combination of characteristics. Some individuals mildly affected may exhibit only slight delays in language and greater challenges with social interactions. They may have difficulty initiating and/or maintaining a conversation. Their communication is often described as talking at others instead of to them.
- What Causes Autism? While experts agree that there is no one cause of autism just as there is no one type of autism. Over the last five years, scientists have identified a number of rare gene changes, or mutations, associated with autism. Research has identified more than a hundred autism risk genes. In around 15 percent of cases, a specific genetic cause of a person’s autism can be identified. However, most cases involve a complex and variable combination of genetic risk and environmental factors that influence early brain development.
- What Symptoms should I be aware of if I Suspect My Child has Autism? Symptoms/behaviors of ASDs can range from mild to severe, and may seem to appear gradually or suddenly. A typical development may be observed from birth, or more commonly, become noticeable during the 12- to 36-month period. Symptoms include: social interaction difficulties, communications difficulties, and repetitive behaviors. The Mayo Clinic has a complete list of symptoms.
- What Treatments Should I Investigate? Early Intervention Services when your child is an infant and toddler are a great place to start. The Autism Treatment Network (ATN) is a ground-breaking network of hospitals, physicians, researchers and families at 17 locations across the United States and Canada. ATN clinicians work together to develop the most effective approach to medical care for children and adolescents affected by autism.
Autism is in the news front and center. Reports of the latest statistics from the Center for Disease Control, research, therapies, schools, and of course the inevitable feel good story of an autism success story. Unfortunately, with autism being discussed by experts and laypeople alike, there are bound to be falsehoods reported and perpetuated. Let’s look at some of the myths and facts of autism. With help from the experts at Johns-Hopkins School of Education, Autism Speaks, and Autism Awareness we have complied several of the most common myths about autism that we hope to dispel with education and honest discussions.
Myth: Autism spectrum disorders are not increasing in incidence. They are just being better diagnosed, and diagnosed earlier so the numbers are increasing.
Fact: Autism spectrum disorders are increasing across the globe at an alarming rate. Some states are considered to be in an autism epidemic. Many states experienced a 500-1000% increase in the past few years. No one knows the cause or causes for the increase. Better and earlier diagnosis can only account for a fraction of the current increases in numbers.
Myth: People with autism can’t feel or express any emotion—happy or sad.
Fact: Autism doesn’t make an individual unable to feel the emotions you feel, it just makes the person communicate emotions (and perceive your expressions) in different ways.
Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting.
Fact: In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. This has long been disproved.
Myth: Therapies for people with autism are covered by insurance.
Fact: Most insurance companies exclude autism from the coverage plan and only half of the 50 states currently require coverage for treatments of autism spectrum disorders.
Myth: Autism spectrum disorders get worse as children get older.
Fact: Autism spectrum disorders are not degenerative. Children and adults with autism should continuously improve. They are most likely to improve with specialized, individualized services and opportunities for supported inclusion. If they are not improving, make changes in service delivery.
Myth: Certain intensive, behavioral based programs “cure” autism spectrum disorders if they are delivered at the right age and intensity.
Fact: There is no cure for autism spectrum disorders.
Autism is a complex disorder that has many related conditions that have similar symptoms and overlapping symptoms. Dyslexia is one such related disorder that may be difficult to recognize among other symptoms of autistic children. Let’s take a closer look at dyslexia and how it relates to autism.
What is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia impacts approximately four to ten children in a hundred. The term refers to difficulties with the basic components of reading. This includes problems with decoding (sounding out words), encoding (spelling out words) and reading words quickly and accurately (fluency). For children with dyslexia, these skills are much lower than would be expected for their age and intellectual ability. Dyslexia involves problems in “phonological awareness.” This refers to the ability to recognize the roles that sounds play in speech. So it includes detecting rhyming words and the beginning and ending sounds of words. It also includes being aware of smaller sound units such as syllables and “phonemes” – the smallest sound units. Children with dyslexia struggle with basic phonological processing, and this hampers their development of early reading skills. (Source: Autism Speaks)
Dyslexia and Autism
Most children with dyslexia are diagnosed in elementary school due to difficulty with reading, sounding out words and reading fluency. Speech-language pathologists can evaluate children for dyslexia and create an individual education plan (IEP) specifically to intervene in reading disorders. Autism and dyslexia are both linked to the way the brain processes information. For this reason it is not unusual for people with autism to also have a diagnosis of dyslexia. Children with autism may have reading issues or speech issues that could interfere with diagnosing dyslexia or understanding the depth of the reading issue as it relates to decoding and encoding. People with dyslexia and autism should seek appropriate treatment for both conditions. Speak with your child’s special education teacher, classroom teacher or guidance counselor to discuss both autism and the possibility that the reading difficulties your child is experiencing may be dyslexia or possibly another reading disorder.
Information about autism is easily accessible through a quick google search to reputable sites like Milestones, Autism Speaks and Autism.org. However, common misconceptions still linger about this neurological disorder. Let’s look at some of the myths about this disorder that have perpetuated.
- Myth – Autism has become an epidemic. Reality – One theory? Some researchers speculate that the rise in autism diagnoses has more to do with better diagnostic methods. Plus, the diagnosis of autism has expanded to include autism spectrum disorders, which encompass more symptoms and conditions, and thus more cases. There has been a rise in the cases of autism. The rate of autism has increased by 600% in the last 20 years. In 1975, an estimated 1 in 1,500 had autism. In 2009, an estimated 1 in 110 had an autism spectrum disorder.
- Myth – Autistic children don’t communicate. Reality – There is a wide range of communication abilities in children with autism. Most children with autism do communicate either verbally, through cards or sign language.
- Myth – Children with autism are violent. Reality – While sensory overload can lead to acting out in autistic individuals, violence is not a usual occurrence.
- Myth: Autism is caused by vaccines. Reality – There is no evidence that childhood vaccination causes autism. A 1998 study linking autism with vaccines has since been retracted.
- Myth: Autism can be cured. Reality – There is currently no cure for autism spectrum disorders.
- Myth: Therapies for people with autism are covered by insurance.
Reality – Most insurance companies exclude autism from the coverage plan and only half of the 50 states currently require coverage for treatments of autism spectrum disorders.
- Myth: Autism is caused by bad parenting. Reality – In the 1950s, a theory called the “refrigerator mother hypothesis” arose suggesting that autism was caused by mothers who lacked emotional warmth. This has long been disproved.
Sources – Autism Speaks, WGBH PBS, Autism.org
Just eight short years ago on December 18, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly partnered with the country of Qatar to spearhead a resolution that declared April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day. The resolution passed unanimously! The purpose of this measure included: encouraging members nations around the globe to take steps to raise awareness about autism and promote both early diagnosis and intervention. World Autism Awareness Day, or WAAD, is one of only four official health specific United Nation Days and is a testament to this growing global health crisis. Current estimates have autism effecting tens of millions people around the world.
Since its inception, this special day has been marked by supporters Lighting It Up Blue for autism in creative and amazing ways. Included in these celebrations were most notably some iconic landmarks that were illuminated in blue light such as: the Sphinx and Pyramids in Gaza, Egypt, the Empire State Building in New York, the Taipei Tower in Taiwan, One World Trade Center in Rockefeller Center, China’s Pearl Tower, London’s Trafalgar Square and the La Basilica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain. Social media also did their own version of Lighting It Up Blue under the Twitter hashtag #LIUB showcasing how the world celebrated with the color blue and the autism puzzle piece theme. Celebrities, singers and famous athletes took to social media as well to post videos to raise awareness about this crisis which now effects 1 in 68 children(Source: CDC) . Even the most unlikely places celebrated Lighting it Up Blue. The water at Niagara Falls, the main strip of Las Vegas and a military base in Kabul Afghanistan also showed their support by turning blue for the day.
Milestones celebrated its own Light It Up Blue day with students and staff wearing puzzle piece themed items and blue! Students especially enjoyed feeling like they were contributing to raising awareness and being a part of a global initiative.