Autism (also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder – ASD) is known as a “spectrum” because there is a wide variation in the type and severity of the symptoms people experience. It occurs in all racial and economic groups, although it is more persistent in boys than girls. Although it is usually a lifelong disorder, treatments and services can improve a person’s symptoms and ability to function. It is a disorder in the development of the brain. While ASD can be diagnosed at any age, it is said to be a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear during the first two years of life. Symptoms are usually manifested from about six months to three years old.
Some of the most common symptoms are:
- Disconnection. Autistic children appear disconnected or distant from others, even to their parents, brothers and sisters. Usually, this symptom appears before age one.
- Lack of Empathy. Autistic children believe that everyone understands and sees things as they do. They tend to have a limited range of emotions.
- Indifferent to human interaction. Unlike most children, infants do not engage with others by staring at faces or responding when they are called. They tend to avoid eye contact. Even beyond infancy, they tend not to look at or listen to people. This begins to manifest itself between 12 and 18 months. By age four, they tend to be loners and ignore other children.
- Emotional outbursts. Austistic children may throw temper tantrums or demonstrate physically aggressive behavior to themselves and others.
- Delayed language development. Children with autism may not start to babble or speak as late as two or three years old.
- Non-verbal communication. Because they do not begin to speak until later, autistic children display non-verbal means to communicate, such as drawing pictures or making gestures.
- Figurative language. Autistic children may not derive any secondary meaning from words or expressions. They cannot distinguish tones of voice. Also, they have difficulty distinguishing reality from make believe.
- Other social behaviors include: inability to understand others’ points of view; facial expressions and gestures that are not match what is being said; and often talking at length about a subject about which no one else shows an interest.
Treatments and Therapy
Observing and knowing all of the above as early as possible, enables your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to benefit greatly – the earlier the better. It is important that you do as much as you can for your child as soon as you can. However, it can be difficult, after the original diagnosis, to consider where and how to start. The doctor who made the diagnosis can certainly point you in the right direction.
Even before the diagnosis, you can begin by addressing the child’s communications problems, since they are a major source of tantrums and other behavior issues with children with ASD. If children cannot communicate their needs or understand others, they often resort to difficult behavior. However, if they learn to communicate effectively as early as possible, they will not have to rely on behavior to make themselves understood.
In addition to helping to reduce bad behavior, very early intervention can assist in brain development; as the brains of children with ASD develops differently from their peers. Further, early treatment and proper care can reduce your child’s difficulties while helping him/her learn new skills and make the most of his/her strengths.
There is no known single best treatment for ASD. Your child’s doctor will assist you in finding the right treatment program. The doctor may also prescribe medication to treat some of the symptoms which your child exhibits, such as: irritability, aggression, repetitive behavior, hyperactivity, attention problems, anxiety and depression. You can read more about the latest news on medication warnings, medication guides, or newly-approved medications at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website at https:www.fda.gov/.
Behavioral, Psychological, and Educational Therapy
People with ASD may be referred to doctors who specialize in providing behavioral, psychological, educational, or skill-building interventions. These programs are highly structured and intensive. They may involve parents, siblings, and other family members. Once in school, they will also involve teachers and other skilled school personnel.
Autism and the Public Schools
Federal law requires that public schools provide all special needs children with an education, regardless of any disabilities they may have. However, the law does not specify what the schools must provide. With regard to students with ASD, their needs can vary greatly, as at present, there is no single research-based way of teaching students with autism. The means may be similar, depending on the child’s symptoms, and are delineated in the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). These can include:
- Providing an environment which is calm and not chaotic;
- Providing a small student-teacher ratio (perhaps even 1:1);
- Providing para professionals and therapists;
- Making the lessons specific to the child’s needs;
- Providing a means of relaxing and enjoying recreation with peers or by oneself;
- Providing instruction in language and communication development;
- Providing a least restrictive environment, while required by law, is especially important in the case of children with autism. Whether he/she attends public or private school, the child should not be isolated from neighboring community. This would enable the student to interact with his neighboring peers, families, teachers, and others in the community. This will assist the student as he/she grows into adulthood.
In New Jersey, (along with four or five other states) has developed some very good programs for dealing with autism. Unfortunately, individual school districts are often fiscally constrained from implementing many of them. Consequently, they often provide a minimally-acceptable assortment of options for autistic students.
Even with the “Early Find” law, which requires that preschool children with disabilities be identified and given behavioral and physical therapy so that they will be ready for school, it is not implemented maximally.
Possible Effects on Girls
Examining the past diagnoses, boys, with autism, have outnumbered girls by approximately 3 or 4 to 1. However, there recent thinking is that girls may not exhibit all of the symptoms described earlier, as boys do. For example, girls usually are better at adapting to their environment, even if they are autistic, than boys. This could lead to not recognizing early symptoms and avoiding referral to a medical specialist. Consequently, the thinking is that girls may be either misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed. This prevents girls from receiving early services and intervention. As a result,
Diagnosis of autism in girls is often made two years later than in boys, thereby depriving them of the benefits of early intervention.
Providing the proper educational services for children with ASD can be very costly, many times more than teaching child without special needs. It is costly because of the labor-intensive and specialized personnel required, some on a 1:1 ratio of student to Teacher or specialty-educated therapists, doctors, and paraprofessionals.
The federal government has never provided the promised forty percent of funding since the law was implemented in 1975. Instead, it has provided less than a third of that amount.
- The unprovoked funding from above, is not an investment, but a costly waste of money. The sooner that children receive needed services, the better they function later in life. Research has shown that inititially providing services at age two, as opposed to age six, results in a cumulative lifetime savings of $1.2 million (2014 dollars) in social services.
- In 2012, an early intervention study named the Early Start Denver Model , using the model provided by Applied Behavioral Analysis) (ABA), paid for itself in approximately eight years.
- They did not consider that autism was rarely diagnosed until relatively recently. These numbers have increased in recent years, thereby more greatly emphasizing the savings to society. In short, we as a society have been “penny wise and dollar foolish,” in our expenditures in the research of autism.
- Until recently, many schools provided minimum services and opportunities for autistic children, failing to recognize the potential of these students to contribute meaningfully to society. However, in the 1917 Supreme Court decision of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the court unanimously ruled that a district must provide every child, regardless of disability, the opportunity to grow. This decision struck down a 1982 Supreme Court decision that only required public schools to provide a basic floor in their special education programs.
The results of all of this research, court rulings, and innovative school districts provide a positive pathway for all students with special needs, especially those with ASD.