By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
There has been a tenfold increase of autism prevalence in the last 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are three million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide who have autism. As a parent who may have a child with autism, you may be scared and wonder what you can do to help your child when you find out that diagnosis.
While having a child with autism can present some challenges, this diagnosis does not mean that all hope is lost. Half the battle with any diagnosis is understanding what the condition means, how to be proactive in treatment, and managing the illness so that your child can still have a high quality of life.
“In order to help individuals with autism reach their full potential we have to find ways of teaching them that are meaningful to them as an individual,” said psychologist Nicole DeRosa, assistant professor of pediatrics at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse. “We all learn differently, and we all behave differently.”
DeRosa offers five key facts about autism.
1. Early detection helps
When it comes to treatment options, early intervention can improve learning, communication and social skills.
In 2018, the CDC determined that approximately one in 59 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkup. Much was not previously known about what causes the disorder, but research is showing that some combination of environmental influences and rare gene changes can contribute to the development of autism, which impacts early brain development.
“I talk a lot with families about the importance of early diagnosis,” said DeRosa, who is also a clinical psychologist at SUNY Upstate’s family behavior analysis program. “The earlier we can diagnose autism the quicker we can start giving people the resources and services they need.”
2. Autism is a spectrum
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in social skills and social communication, along with the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors.
There are various signs of autism that include avoiding eye contact, delayed speech and communication skills, reliance on rules and routines. With every child being different that doesn’t mean that every child will display these signs but they are simply markers to be made aware of. There can also be unexpected reactions to sounds, tastes, sights, touch and smells, difficulty understanding other people’s emotions, focusing on or becoming obsessed by a narrow range of interests or objects, engaging in repetitive behavior such as flapping hands or rocking and children not responding to their name by 12 months.
“If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” said DeRosa. “The overarching message is that all humans are different and behave differently, and thus different individuals with an autism diagnosis may display various and different symptoms.”
3. Individuals with autism are just like you and me.
The reason why it is essential to reiterate this point is because many times those who have autism spectrum disorder can be treated or looked at differently.
“Individuals with autism have the same needs, wants, emotions and ability to learn as everybody else,” she said. “At times some individuals with autism may express their wants and needs differently, due to communication or socialization difficulties. Thus, it’s important that we teach them in ways that are meaningful to them to help them reach their greatest potential.”
4. There is a lot of misinformation on autism spectrum disorder
It can be difficult for families to know what is right and what is wrong when it comes to knowing about autism. DeRosa encourages families to thoroughly look into the sources of information and discuss any concerns or treatment considerations with their child’s pediatrician or other health professionals with expertise in working with individuals with autism.
“Misinformation can result in not only a waste of time, money and other resources, but in some instances may be harmful,” said DeRosa. “It can be frustrating because there is a lot that we still don’t know. However, families should know that they are not alone. There is a community of peers and professionals out there that want them to have access to the best resources and the most successful outcomes for their child to have a happy and healthy life.”
5. There may not be a cure, but there are effective treatments
Experts still do not know all of the causes of autism spectrum disorder, according to the CDC. There may be many different factors that make a child more likely to develop symptoms of autism, including environmental, biologic and genetic factors.
“Although we still have more to learn about the causes and risk factors associated with autism, there are effective treatments for autism symptoms and treatments with the strongest evidence base include those that are based on the principles of learning and behavior, such as applied behavior analysis,” said DeRosa.