April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month

As many of you know, April is Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month.  In 2016, 1 in every 68 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.  As of April 2018, that number increased to 1 in 59 — a 13.2% increase since 2014.  This article will discuss autism, the signs of autism, and the importance of early intervention.

Autism spectrum disorder, ASD, is a developmental disability.  Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions which present themselves during early childhood and persist throughout one’s lifetime.  Many teenagers and adults are currently being diagnosed with autism based on the DSM5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which now states:  “Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifested until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life)” https://cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html.  Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.  As with all individuals, individuals on the spectrum possess individual strengths and weaknesses.  Some individuals with autism may require a high level of support while others require minimal to no support to achieve independence throughout their daily lives.  Although individuals with autism spectrum disorder are as unique as all other individuals, individuals with autism spectrum disorder experience deficits in the areas of communication, socialization, and behavior.  Some individuals may be non-vocal and prefer to be by themselves; while others may communicate through assistive technology and lack the skill to socialize beyond greeting others; yet other individuals may speak in complete sentences but may not know when to end a conversation or recognize when peers are no longer interested.

While children develop at different rates, it is important to know your child and what skills are expected by certain ages in your child’s development.  “Children meet developmental milestones in the way they play, learn, speak, and act.”  The CDC has compiled a list of Developmental Milestones for children up to the age of 5 https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html  You, the parent, know your child best.  As soon as you feel something “just isn’t right” with your child or he/she may not be meeting developmental milestones, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician immediately.  It is imperative that your child receives regular child checkups and that you discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.  Pediatricians will monitor your child’s development and ask you questions.  If your pediatrician identifies concerns or agrees with your concerns, he/she will do a developmental screening and your child may be diagnosed with one or multiple developmental delays. Your pediatrician will then refer your child for a comprehensive evaluation which will be conducted by a developmental pediatrician, a neurologist, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist.  Some signs of autism include:  little or no eye contact; little or no spoken words; little or no interest in other people or under/over reaction to odors, sounds, tastes, and textures; little or not interest in pretend play; lack of pointing to objects or looking at objects others point to; difficulties in changes with routine; and/or loss of skills once had.  Other signs can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends, “All children be screened for ASD at ages 18 and 24 months along with regular developmental surveillance” and states that “research shows that early intervention can considerably improve children’s long-term development and social behaviors.”  While there is no cure for autism and a person can not “outgrow” autism, early diagnosis and intervention is vital while the brain is more capable of absorbing information and changing (brain plasticity).  Early intervention can greatly improve a child’s outcomes and increase the likelihood that the child will meet their full potential.  Early intervention is proven to be effective, therefore, the earlier you can obtain services for your child the better.  The Autism Society recommends early intervention for children diagnosed with Autism.  http://www.autism-society.org/living-with-autism/autism-through-the-lifespan/infants-and-toddlers/early-intervention/.  The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development states that “individuals can learn and benefit from interventions and learning at any age; however, the earlier the better.”

Children under the age of two who are suspected of having a developmental delay or developmental disability to include autism may qualify for publicly funded Early Intervention services such as Speech and Occupational Therapy under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).  Children of any age may also qualify for private intensive therapy covered by private insurance and/or Medicaid.  The first intensive therapy your child may benefit from is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).  ABA is a science which combines the laws and principles of learning and behavior to build skills in the areas of communication, socialization, toileting, feeding, independence, etc.  ABA can also reduce maladaptive behaviors and dangerous behaviors such as: aggression, tantrum behavior, self-injurious behavior, etc.  Speech Therapy is another intervention and can assist children in the areas of speech, language, thinking, and swallowing.  A Speech Therapist can provide nonvocal children with an alternative form of communication; assist a child in expanding their length of communication; improve articulation; assist with receptive language deficits; as well as assist with feeding issues.  Occupational Therapy can assist children in succeeding in their daily activities such as:  playing, learning, and socializing.  An Occupational Therapist can assist children with problem solving and provide environmental modification solutions.

Aside from early intervention and therapy, there is a lot of support for individuals diagnosed with autism and their families which are offered through government entities and private entities alike.  Families and individuals are encouraged to get involved in educational and recreational opportunities to include:  support groups for parents and siblings, recreational activities, and training/informational sessions.  Families and individuals are encouraged to explore and apply for government assistance such as:  Medicaid (FAMIS PLUS), Childrens Health Insurance Program (FAMIS), Medicaid Waivers, and private grants.  Children with autism could qualify for government funded Early Intervention services (PEIDS and Infant Toddler Connection) as stated above as well as special education services as listed under IDEA.  Families are encouraged to explore and utilize all options available.  A complete guide to supports and resources in Virginia, Roadmap to Supports, as well as many other resources can be found at http://paragonautismservices.com_old/blog/.  Paragon Autism Services invites families to utilize Paragon Autism Services for their knowledge, resources, free educational opportunities, and free recreational opportunities.