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Autism: What You Need To Know

April Is National Autism Awareness Month.

by Dr. Roy Q. Sanders

Each year in the United States, 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism. In Georgia, that rate is 1 in 84.

Although there is no known cure, autism is treatable. Early diagnosis and treatment of children with an autism spectrum disorder — ASD — is critical to gain positive lifelong skills and social behaviors. Currently, it is possible to diagnose children as young as 18 months old.

Novice and seasoned parents alike are increasingly vigilant about their children’s development. While some children meet motor, language, and social milestones according to schedule, others are slow to demonstrate the skills that parents anticipate. Sometimes, there is a fine line between children who are developing normally, and children who are exhibiting developmental delays. The cause of autism in not yet known and it affects each child differently. Some children are mildly affected, while others experience severe symptoms.  Therefore, autism is considered to be a spectrum of disorders.

According to a report released , currently, 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism. Boys with autism outnumber girls 5-to-1, as estimates suggest 1 in 54 boys is on the autism spectrum. Despite the strides that geneticists have made in identifying genetic markers, there is no medical “test” for autism. Diagnoses are based on the presence or absence of behaviors as reported by parents and observed by clinicians.

During clinical interviews, many parents report that they were concerned early on about their child. Often, they were encouraged to wait for the child’s skills to improve with time.  What should parents be looking for? There are a few “red flags,” related to the absence or limited use of certain critical skills.  Some examples of warning signs parents should look for are:

  • Not using social smiles or joyful expressions by six months or eye contact when their name is called by twelve months
  • Not using back-and-forth sharing of sounds, facial expressions or face-to-face play by nine months
  • Not using gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving or playing social games by 12 months
  • Not using independent two-word meaningful phrases by 24 months and not following 2-to-3 step directions at three years.
  • Presenting a loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

Each child with autism, as with any other disease, is unique. One treatment may be appropriate for one child, but not another. Children with autism can benefit from a combination of educational and behavioral interventions, occupational and speech therapy and medication. A study released by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry demonstrated that combined pharmacological and behavioral treatment for severe behaviors in Autism Spectrum Disorders were more effective than pharmacological treatment alone.

Considerable research has demonstrated that behavioral therapy is effective in the treatment  of autism. Children with ASD need intensive, one-on-one behavioral therapy 10 to 25 hours per week, with therapies designed and implemented by knowledgeable professionals.

Early intervention is extremely important and is a determining factor in long term prognosis. With an early diagnosis, a child with an ASD can begin therapy at age three instead of age seven. One study suggested, with early intervention and behavioral therapy combined, an estimated 20 percent to 50 percent of children with an ASD will be able to rejoin their classmates in regular education classes.

Research indicates that with early, intensive intervention based on the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis — a form of behavioral intervention, substantial numbers of children with autism or pervasive developmental disorder can attain intellectual, academic, communication, social and daily living skills within the normal range.

Unfortunately, many families do not have access to the care their child needs in their own community. Some treatment facilities, like the Marcus Autism Center, are starting to incorporate telemedicine programs for treatment. Telemedicine uses a video camera to connect to a child to a specialist. Telemedicine helps children get the care they need without a long commute. Marcus also incorporates community-based programs that take treatment into the home and school.

For more information about treatment for autism visit the Marcus Autism Center.

Dr. Sanders is medical director of the Marcus Autism Center.

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