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Health: Understanding, diagnosing and treating autism spectrum disorder

Rosanna Turner
Special to the Free Press
The most common form of treatment for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder is applied behavior analysis, known as ABA therapy. ABA therapy is considered a scientifically proven approach for treating ASD
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

if it seems like autism is popping up more in the news lately, that’s not a coincidence. On the web stories about autism abound, with headlines like “Mom’s iron intake might be associated with autism risk” from The Huffington Post and “Children born too close together face autism risk” from The Telegraph in the U.K. popping up just last month. More often than not, these stories feed the Internet beast and our hunger to unlock the mysteries surrounding autism rather than provide concrete answers.

In 2012, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that one in 88 children in multiple communities in the U.S. had been identified as having autism (now more commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder or ASD). This past March, the CDC reported that this number was now one in 68 children, a 30 percent increase from two years ago. It’s unclear whether this significant up-tick is due to a rise in the actual number of children with autism spectrum disorder or simply because more awareness has led to more diagnoses.

Nicole King, a board certified behavior analyst with ABC Behavioral in Eagle, said while there have been numerous studies focusing on ASD, we still don’t know exactly why, or how, children develop it.



“There’s a lot of research happening because it’s the fastest growing developmental disability (in the U.S.),” King said. “At this point, it’s likely (there’s) a genetic component and environmental component, (but) the research hasn’t pinpointed anything (specific) yet.”



READING THE SIGNS YOUNG AND EARLY

King, who works with children with ASD, said while the cause of ASD is still unknown, early diagnosis and intervention is crucial to treatment. According to the CDC, most children are diagnosed with ASD after age 4, but some can be diagnosed as young as 2. The symptoms of ASD aren’t always easy to spot and can vary widely from child to child. King said typically symptoms are divided into three categories: social, behavioral and communication. Oftentimes children with ASD aren’t meeting the developmental milestones other children tend to hit at a certain age, such as not talking or smiling, or engaging in unusual play behaviors.

Eagle resident Ivy Peplinski said she didn’t see anything unusual with her son, J.P., until he was almost six. Peplinski said J.P. was having some difficulties in preschool and seemed bored, but she didn’t think that was an indication he might have ASD.

“There (wasn’t) a concrete sign or symptom to point us in any kind of direction,” Peplinski said. “The best way to describe it is he was frustrated. He was having a harder time with the teachers than other kids, and that’s why we weren’t sure. We were wondering, ‘Is he just bored with school right now?’”

Now age 7, Peplinski said J.P. has asperger syndrome, a form of ASD. Peplinski said she wasn’t surprised when she found out J.P. was on the autism spectrum, mainly because her younger sister, who’s 23, also has asperger syndrome.

LEARNING AND UNLEARNING BEHAVIOR

The most common form of treatment for children with ASD is applied behavior analysis, known as ABA therapy. ABA therapy is considered a scientifically proven approach for treating ASD and is endorsed by the U.S. surgeon general, the American Academy of Family Pediatrics and the National Institute of Mental Health, among others. ABA therapy uses techniques like positive reinforcement and reward to bring about changes in behavior.

“We’re teaching new behaviors and skills that are socially appropriate and more positive,” King said. “You might have a kid with autism who doesn’t have any language, and they may apply challenging behavior because they don’t know how to communicate their needs. We will work with those kids to teach them functional behaviors and appropriate ways to reduce those challenging behaviors.”

Kids who undergo ABA therapy can make “tremendous improvements,” King said.

Peplinski said putting her son in ABA therapy made a big difference.

“I feel like behavioral therapy is number one as far as helping your child,” Peplinski said. “It’s helping them to develop life skills. These skills, for other children, they’re innate. Simply by living with your parents, it’s inherited. For a child that has asperger syndrome or autism, they’re not. They have to be learned, just like anything you’re learning in school.”

For some parents with children on the autism spectrum, the most difficult thing can be dealing with other kids and parents who don’t understand the disorder. Peplinski said last year her son was bullied by another student at school who realized J.P. was “different” and therefore vulnerable to bullying.

LIFE ‘AFTER’ AUTISM?

An Aug. 3 feature in the New York Times called “After Autism” reported on children whose diagnosed ASD supposedly vanished as they got older, with some showing no signs or symptoms when they reached adulthood. King said through the use of ABA therapy, it’s possible that a child could be diagnosed at a certain point with ASD and then be diagnosed again at a later period and not meet the criteria. However, it’s important that parents seek diagnosis and treatment as soon as possible if they think their children might have ASD.

“It goes back to that early intervention piece,” King said. “The research shows that we can have better outcomes if early intervention services are provided. … If a child is at risk, (parents) shouldn’t wait to see if they’ll grow out of it.”

King reminds us that all children have strengths and challenges, regardless of an ASD diagnosis.

“All of our children, with or without a diagnosis, have some areas where they need to learn and grow,” King said. “It’s just a little more pronounced with children living with autism, and that’s where these therapies can come into play. Kids on the spectrum display the same skills that typical kids learn at a faster pace. What we see with kids with autism is that they can learn these skills, it just takes a little bit longer.”

With early diagnosis and treatment, parents like Peplinski have faith that their children can have a long and happy future. Having watched her sister struggle with ASD throughout her adolescence and adulthood, Peplinski has seen firsthand that life with ASD is not easy. Despite this, she remains optimistic about her son.

“I have very high hopes that he’s going to have a very successful life,” Peplinski said. “I have hope that the situation he’s been dealt with in life, that he’s going to be able to overcome that.”


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