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Boost Your Knowledge About Autism

Erica Pozzie, chief clinical officer for Autism Home Support Services, answers some common questions concerning autism.

Q: What is autism?

A: Autism is a neurological condition that usually appears in early childhood.

“Autism” and “Autism Spectrum Disorder” (ASD) are used interchangeably and include symptoms such as difficulty with communication and social relationships. Frequent meltdowns, running away and other challenging behaviors aren’t unusual among children with autism.

There’s a common saying: “If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.” Every person with ASD has a unique combination of challenges and strengths.

Q: How common is autism?

A: The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 68 children in the United States has autism. It is more common in boys than girls, with 1 in 42 boys having ASD and 1 in 189 girls.

ASD affects more than 2 million people in the United States and tens of millions across the globe.

Q: How can I tell if my child might have autism?

A: A 6-month old with autism might not make eye contact or smile at people. By age 1, a child may not respond to her name, babble or point to communicate. Many children with autism don’t speak by 16 months or use meaningful phrases by age 2.

Q: At what age can a diagnosis be made?

A: Children can be diagnosed as early as age 2, although many parents notice signs earlier. Studies show that at least one-third of parents noticed a problem before their child’s first birthday, and up to 80 percent saw problems by the child’s second birthday.

If you’re concerned, make sure your pediatrician conducts an M-CHAT evaluation at 18 and 24 months to determine whether your son or daughter is at risk. Parents can also download the M-CHAT online at www.m-chat.org/ and do the test themselves.

If results indicate that your child is high risk or you’re worried, have your child evaluated by a developmental pediatrician or a neurologist who can provide a diagnosis.

Q: Is an early diagnosis important and why?

A: Yes! Numerous studies show that children who are diagnosed early and receive intensive therapy have better outcomes. In fact, a child’s brain is most open to learning until age 3, after which “neuroplasticity” declines every year.

The earlier the diagnosis, the more time there is for therapy to help your child learn age-appropriate skills, improve social interaction and reduce challenging behaviors before starting school.

Q: What challenges do families with an autistic child or adult face?

A: Children and adults with autism often have trouble with communication, social relationships and sensory input, which makes many activities difficult. This can include playing with other children, joining family gatherings, or even going to a baseball game or the mall.

Parents also spend a tremendous amount of time identifying the best therapy and education options for their child and negotiating insurance benefits, while juggling other children and jobs.

Parents of adults with ASD face these and additional issues. They may need to arrange for a supportive residence, find work or vocational opportunities and make sure their child can get around the community safely. Other adults with ASD can manage daily living activities on their own.

Q: What services are available for those with autism in the Chicago suburbs?

A: Metro Chicago offers many options for people with autism. Young children often start with a program called “early intervention” that provides a few hours of speech, occupational, developmental and/or physical therapy each week.

However, research shows that up to 40 hours a week of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the most effective therapy to help children and adolescents with ASD learn age-appropriate behaviors, and improve communication and social skills. A scientifically proven therapy, ABA is the only treatment for ASD that’s been endorsed by the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Many area organizations offer alternatives for intensive ABA therapy. For example, Autism Home Support Services provides in-home ABA throughout the Chicago area and center-based therapy in Northbrook and Arlington Heights for ages 2 to 23.

Q: What about adults? If you suspect you might be autistic as an adult, but never were diagnosed as such, should you see a doctor for an official diagnosis?

A: Absolutely. Broader awareness of ASD has led many adults to notice similarities between their experiences and autism symptoms.

If you think you might have ASD, ask your primary doctor for a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in diagnosing adults.

Q: In what ways can families without autistic children or adults be supportive and helpful to those families with autistic children or adults?

A: Be flexible: Families that have children with autism may not be able to go out very often. They may cancel plans at the last minute.

Don’t judge: You may find a child’s behavior difficult, but children with autism usually aren’t “being bad.” They don’t have the skills to behave differently.

Be inclusive: ASD can be isolating, and an invitation to a birthday party or neighborhood gathering provides a much-needed social opportunity. Accommodating a child with autism can be as easy as turning down the music or not lighting firecrackers.

Ask: Many parents of children with autism will tell you how you can help and will deeply appreciate the gesture.

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