At the Autism Tree Project Foundation, a non-profit education and screening program for youth with autism, young Jeremiah Mitchell, 4, met with Speech Language Pathologist Kara Dodds. — Peggy Peattie
Early autism detection helps, but it's hard.
Starting therapy early for children with disorder is key to getting them on path toward adulthood and potential self-sufficiency
By Bradley J. Fikes APRIL 2, 2015
Autism is hard to define because it isn’t just one thing. It’s an array of neurological disorders that can trap the subject into his or her own body, unable to relate to others.
These conditions reflect a spectrum of severity, from the slightly socially awkward but brilliant geek to the profoundly autistic child who never learns to speak or use the toilet.
And the causes are also diverse.
Genetics are known to be risk factors, as are environmental conditions. The autism rate is twice the normal incidence among those conceived with assisted reproductive technologies such as in-vitro fertilization.
Autistics may engage in repeated patterns of movement, making sounds or manipulating objects. This self-stimulatory behavior is called “stimming.”
The genetic side of autism involves numerous gene variants, each of which has only a small effect on its own. Some of the genes have been linked to patches of disorganized cortical tissue in the brains of people with autism.
Additionally, maternal antibodies that attack a fetus’ brain are implicated in about one-quarter of autism cases.
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While all of this research work is complex, therapy for people diagnosed with autism is more straightforward. Therapists seek to train autistics in the skills of social interaction, such as responding to questions and looking at the person conversing with them.
The younger a person starts autism therapy, the better.
Jeremiah Mitchell, who was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, nestles in his grandmother Josefina Ring's lap. He tends to play by himself, ignoring someone right next to him. But his symptoms have lessened after focused therapy. — Peggy Peattie
But diagnosing autism early on can be challenging, because the signs can be subtle and parents and doctors need to know what to look for.
The Autism Tree Project Foundation, a San Diego nonprofit group that helps autistic children and their families, sponsors a free screening program in preschools to identify children who may have autism or other developmental disorders. The service is provided by Kara Dodds and Associates in San Diego and Jean Novak of San Jose State University.
Children flagged by the screenings as possibly having one of the disorders are examined by specialists, with the goal of obtaining an official diagnosis.
Without early intervention, mild to moderate autism can lead to bigger troubles down the road, when therapy is less effective, Dodds said.
Signs of autism
• Doesn’t make eye contact.
• Fails to respond to his or her own name, or to a familiar voice.
• Doesn’t point or wave.
• Regresses in social development.
• Doesn’t make simple requests.
Jeremiah Mitchell, who soon will turn 4, has moderate autism that might be missed without such screening, said Dodds, who saw him at Autism Tree’s headquarters in San Diego. Dodds notes that Jeremiah talks and will answer questions.
It’s what he doesn’t do that warns of potential problems. Jeremiah tends not to look people in the eye and will play by himself, ignoring someone right next to him. And he doesn’t initiate conversations.The screening consists of three parts.
First, the targeted children’s teachers are educated on the signs of autism, including social issues and behavioral problems. Second, screeners directly observe the youngsters, often in small groups. They look at the social interaction or lack of it, the kids’ use of language and whether the children are more fixated on objects than peers around them.
“Another big aspect of what I’m looking is echolalic speech,” Dodds said. “These are kids who are talking, but are really not coming up with their own sentences. They’re echoing back what adults say to them. And when they echo you, they’ll often make pronoun errors. They’ll refer to themselves by their name.”
The third part of the screening is performed by the school, which is given a training kit on how to use speech and music therapy to integrate children with social and language delays into the rest of the class.
Jeremiah was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, and his symptoms have lessened since thanks to focused therapy.
“When he was little, he would cry a lot,” said Josefina Ring, his grandmother. “He’d wake up crying in the middle of the night. And there was the eye contact. He would never look at you. He’d kind of see you but not see you.”
Jeremiah also appeared frustrated, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t, Ring said. He also was frequently sick and had ear infections.
Ring said a physician who examined Jeremiah dismissed the concerns.
“I tried to tell the doctor something’s wrong and he said, ‘He’s just a crybaby.’ ”
For Jeremiah and others people children with autism, the goal of therapy is to teach them social skills that come naturally to others, Dodds said. That way, his own path toward adulthood and hopefully self-sufficiency will be easier.