"Big Four" Highlights


What Is Autism?

Six early detection signs

By Patrice Athanasidy

Autism Awareness Month, each April, has become important to our family because we are now very aware of what autism is and isn’t. Before my son Peter was diagnosed as having an autistic spectrum disorder, I only knew about one type of autism, in which the person seemed to always be in a world of his or her own.

Peter, now 10, was hard to keep engaged as a baby and toddler, but we could get him to smile and giggle. He was having difficulty learning to walk and talk, but he kept meeting the “normal” range just as I would start to worry. Peter also seemed uncomfortable in his own skin. He liked to look at things that went in circles, almost obsessively, and he often was not comfortable being held.

I didn’t know that these were all clues to Peter’s autistic spectrum disorder. Once we received the diagnosis when he was a little past age 3, our family began learning all we could. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Autism Prevalence Rate is 1 in 110 American children, and 1 In 70 boys. That’s even a bit higher than the official numbers only a decade ago.

Autism Speaks, a science and advocacy group founded in 2005, explains the spectrum on its website: “Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders known as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). The other pervasive developmental disorders are PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified), Asperger's Syndrome, Rett Syndrome and Childhood Disintegrative Disorder.”

One of the most important reasons to raise awareness is because the earlier children receive treatment the more likely they are to overcome some of the struggles associated with autism spectrum disorders. Many of these children have difficulties with social skills. They also have senses that are either too sensitive, less aware or a combination of both. You will often see youngsters on the spectrum cover their ears because sounds and sights are overwhelming them. Imagine going to a loud concert with lights flashing and music blaring while wearing an outfit that feels itchy, and then being asked to learn a foreign language. Many of the children on the spectrum find that every day sights and sounds feel like that loud concert, and learning is nearly impossible when their senses are being bombarded by things most people do not even notice.

Physical and occupational therapy help them to train their senses, and handle the sensory overloads, so that they can attend to the tasks of learning and listening.

Theories on causes and treatments are still debated even by experts in the field. Often it takes a combination of therapies to bring about real change. Parents find themselves relying on combinations as well, seeking advice from experts as well as other parents who are ahead of them on the learning path.

One thing that almost everyone agrees with is that the earlier children begin treatment the better the outcome. The Autism Society, a leading grassroots organization in the field, lists the early warning signs:

1. Lack of or delay in spoken language
2. Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
3. Little or no eye contact
4. Lack of interest in peer relationships
5. Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
6. Persistent fixation on parts of objects.

Peter had a bit of all of those signs, but I did not see the pattern until I became concerned about his gait and language and had him evaluated shortly after his second birthday. Now, at age 10, after years of physical and occupational therapy, speech, brush therapy, listening therapy and more, Peter talks quite a bit. He tells me I need to give him more eye contact when I am trying to do too many mother-things at one time. He has his socially inept moments, but he is also asking why we do or don’t do things.

The speech, physical and occupational therapy are a pretty regular combination. Brush therapy is often applied by an occupational therapist to help a child desensitize the body. A small plastic brush is used on the extremities, followed by joint compressions, every 90 minutes for six weeks. The caregiver is taught the procedure so that it can be done at home. Then the brushing is cut back a little at a time. For Peter, the changes were incredible and enabled him to begin sleeping through the night, give a hug, and seem more comfortable in his own body. Listening therapy is also done through an occupational therapist with very specific sounds and music played through earphones a couple of times a day to provide more focus and better listening.

We still have a long road ahead to enable Peter to understand the social nuances of the people around him and give him the tools he needs to navigate this complicated world on his own. Awareness, coupled with acceptance, will make it easier for all those who are on the spectrum.

Patrice Athanasidy is a veteran journalist living with her husband and three children in Westchester County, New York.