Parenting a Child with Autism

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autism

 

Autism is a mysterious disorder with no specific cause or cure. With early intervention and individualized treatments, improved social interaction and communication skills are possible.

 

Autism’s cause is mysterious. And so are its symptoms, definition and treatments. It’s a disorder that’s gaining notoriety as the numbers of diagnoses increase. In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the prevalence of autism had risen to one in every 150 American children.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, autism was a very narrowly defined handicap or disorder,” says Dr. Michael Lauret, a pediatrician at Utah Valley Pediatrics of Provo. “It meant that kids didn’t interact with you or would interact distantly. They’d be off in their own world and do repetitive things. The spectrum back then was narrow.”

In the 1980s, autism’s categorization in the reference book used by health-care professionals changed to include a much wider spectrum, including autism spectrum disorders and pervasive developmental disorder. Since that time, the numbers of diagnosed children has increased dramatically.

For parents with a child diagnosed under the broad umbrella of this spectrum disorder, the primary focus of parenting turns to helping this child.

 

Diagnosis

Learning that your child — or the child of a relative or friend — has autism is no doubt an overwhelming experience. There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism. Instead, the diagnosis is made based on observation of communication, behavior and developmental levels.

The disorder appears in early childhood — usually before age three — and treatment outcomes are more effective the earlier they begin.

The symptoms and degree of impairment are different for every child, but social withdrawal, verbal and nonverbal communication problems, difficulty making eye contact, narrow range of interests and activities, and rigid and repetitive behavior are a few.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened by their family pediatrician twice by the age of 2 — at 18 months and again at 24 months.

Treatment

Some of the challenges associated with autism will improve with treatments. But there is no single treatment guaranteed to help all children.

“That’s the hardest thing with autism,” Dr. Lauret says. “There are studies showing that if you get a child into a really aggressive occupational therapy or physical therapy program, you get a higher functioning child. Those intensive programs help a lot, but some are controversial.”

Treatment approaches are generally broken into three categories: behavioral and communication, biomedical and dietary, and complementary. For many families, a combination of treatments is most effective. For example, drugs, vitamins and special diets won’t correct neurological problems, but those types of treatments will often improve some aspects of autistic behavior.

Complementary therapies such as music, art and animal therapy are often integrated into an educational program. For many children, the benefits of complementary therapy include increased communication skills, improved social interaction, and a sense of accomplishment.

 

Causes

Just like treatments, there is no known single cause for autism.

“Autism is multifactorial,” Dr. Lauret says. “I have patients who are autistic because of head injury, or meningitis, or diseases. But the most common cause is that they were born with it. We don’t know the cause in most cases.”

One of the most controversial issues with autism is the question of its relation to vaccines. But for now, nothing has been proven to link the two.

“The true proof is going to be really hard,” Dr. Lauret says. “People want to find a cause and they’ll latch on to a reason.”

It is generally accepted that autism is caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function. Theories being researched include heredity, genetics and medical problems. Researchers are also investigating environmental factors and problems during pregnancy and delivery.

 

Family support

Every member of the family is affected by an autism diagnosis. Resources like money and time are often used to provide intervention for the child, and couple and parent-to-child relationships are altered. As the demands increase on parents, siblings will manage best by staying informed. As parents share information with all members of the family, the important bond between siblings will be more likely to form and grow.

Although it is often difficult for siblings to form a strong relationship with a brother or sister who has the disorder, attempts at playful interaction, as taught by parents, may improve that sibling’s ability to engage.

One of the most important things to remember is to make time for parents to be alone, and for parents to spend one-on-one time with each child. Any effort to create an environment of equity in the home will do wonders to maintain family bonds.

What is Asperger syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is a mild form of autism, which affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people.

This disability is often “hidden,” as there are no signs of the condition from a person’s outward appearance. Social communication, social interaction, and social imagination are the areas of impairment, and unlike autism, people with Asperger syndrome have fewer problems with speaking and are often of average — or above average — intelligence.

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