Each April 2, autism organizations around the world celebrate World Autism Awareness Day with fundraising and events. Global landmarks get cloaked in blue lights, and the hashtag #LIUB (Light It Up Blue) is peppered throughout social media. A decade ago, Autism Speaks, the world’s leading autism science and advocacy organization, was in its infancy, and families of children with autism encountered limited resources and social stigma at nearly every turn. Fortunately, awareness begets change—in the public’s perception of those on the autism spectrum as well as the amount of resources used to fund programs and research.
Today, millions of dollars have been earmarked for autism research, and news stories featuring children with autism abound. On the Professional Golf Association tour alone, Jordan Spieth started a charitable trust honoring his sister, Ellie, who has autism; Ernie Els’ #GameOn Autism gives youth on the autism spectrum access to golf; and Greg Chalmers and his wife, Nicole, started MAXimum Chances to help connect families to much-needed resources in honor of their son Max.
What causes autism spectrum disorder?
While there is no one cause of autism, and no one type of autism—hence the use of “spectrum” to designate those with the disorder—those with autism may struggle to get the help they need in order to thrive, because a clear diagnosis may be elusive for months or even years. According to AutismSpeaks.org, most cases of autism appear to be caused by a combination of autism risk genes and environmental factors influencing early brain development.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 in 68 American children as being on the autism spectrum; autism is four to five times more common in boys than girls. Those on the autism spectrum may have unique abilities in music, art, and academics, and nearly half have average to above average intelligence. Others have significant limitations that inhibit their abilities to interact with others and function independently. About 25 percent are nonverbal but can be taught to communicate using other means such as picture cards.
What is the most effective form of treatment?
Children on the autism spectrum best respond to treatments that have been tailored to their unique needs. Interventions might include behavioral therapies, medication, or both. Those with ASD might also experience other medical concerns such as problems sleeping, seizures, and gastrointestinal issues, and therefore need specific help to improve their quality of life. Finding a multidisciplinary team of professionals to help navigate the oftentimes stressful process is key. That team might include a child’s pediatrician, a neurologist, a pediatric gastroenterologist, a speech pathologist, a behavioral therapist, and others. AutismSpeaks.org offers a free 100-Day Kit to better explain the options if a child is newly diagnosed.
Early intervention therapy may be intense and require an outside venue as well as at-home visits. Two methods of comprehensive behavioral early intervention include the Lovaas Model based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and the Early Start Denver Model. According to AutismSpeaks.org, parents and therapists also report success with other common behavioral therapies, including Floortime, Pivotal Response Therapy, and Verbal Behavior Therapy.
How can I get involved?
Even if you don’t have a child on the autism spectrum, statistically speaking you will encounter a child with ASD at some point, and so learning more about the disorder will help you, the child, and their family develop a positive bond and minimize any misconceptions. Get involved in fundraising and awareness opportunities near you. To learn more about specific Texas resources, go online to Texas Autism Resource and Research Center at DARS.TX.US/TARRC.
Common traits of good early intervention programs for ASD
- structured, therapeutic activities for at least 25 hours per week
- highly trained therapists and/or teachers deliver the intervention
- well-trained paraprofessionals may assist with the intervention under the supervision of an experienced professional with expertise in autism therapy
- the therapy is guided by specific and well-defined learning objectives
- the child’s progress in meeting objectives is regularly evaluated and recorded
- the intervention focuses on the core areas affected by autism—social skills, language and communication, imitation, play skills, daily living, and motor skills
- the program provides the child with opportunities to interact with typically developing peers
- the program actively engages parents in the intervention, both in decision making and the delivery of treatment
- the program involves a multidisciplinary team that includes, as needed, a physician, speech/language pathologist and occupational therapist
By Pamela Hammonds