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Autism Awareness

What is Autism?
Autistic spectrum disorders are complex developmental disorders, associated with the well-known symptoms of social and communication difficulties, self-stimulatory and repetitive behaviors, and narrow or overly-focused interests. These symptoms result from underlying challenges in a child’s ability to take in the world through his senses, and to use his body and thoughts to respond to it. When these challenges are significant, they interfere with a child’s ability to grow and learn, and may lead to a diagnosis of autism.

Today, with early and intensive treatment tailored to the child’s needs, he can learn to relate, love others very deeply and begin climbing the developmental ladder to think creatively and logically.

Causes
Current research suggests there may be many factors involved in causing autism-related disorders. A child’s risk of autism is thought to increase under the cumulative weight of various risk factors, so that a child’s genetic factors and the way in which he develops prenatally may make him more vulnerable to other factors. These factors may include infectious illnesses, toxic substances (e.g., lead, methylmercury, PCBs, organophosphates, nicotine, and endocrine disrupters such as Dioxin), and factors that trigger active autoimmunity in genetically predisposed children, such as viral infections and vaccines. Psychological or physical stress do not cause autism, but may contribute to a child’s difficulty relating and communicating. For example, a child with extreme sensitivity to sensory information such as sound, touch and light, and with significant motor planning problems, can withdraw from relationships and become repetitive and self-stimulatory in a noisy and chaotic environment.

Screening and Early Intervention
Routine primary health care for all children should involve parents’ descriptions and observations of important developmental landmarks, such as a baby’s capacity to look and listen, relate to a caregiver with joy and pleasure, and engage in reciprocal interactions involving facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations. Routine health care should involve formal screening assessments at periodic intervals to identify infants, toddlers, and preschool children at risk for autistic spectrum or other developmental disorders. Screening tools should be especially sensitive to problems with reciprocal interactions, purposeful social gesturing (e.g., pointing), functional (meaningful) language, and the emergence of pretend play and interactions with peers. At-risk children should immediately receive a full assessment and, if indicated, an intervention program. Children have the best chance of making progress when challenges are identified and worked with early.

A New Look at Autism
The Floortime Foundation DIR/Floortime Model – visit www.floortime.org

Current estimates now place one out of every 166 children on the autistic spectrum. This alarming statistic has prompted the recent launch of the federal government’s ten-year campaign to understand and treat children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). But if we are to truly change the outlook for these children, we must begin by changing our assumptions.

Prevailing wisdom regarding the potential of children with these disorders is deeply pessimistic. The widely used behavioral approach to treatment teaches rote skills with the main goal of changing behaviors, the assumption being that these children’s difficulties in the areas of reading emotional cues, empathy, and creative thinking represent permanent limitations that can not be treated.

But they can. Children originally diagnosed with ASD can learn to relate, love others very deeply, and many can learn to communicate and think creatively and logically. In contrast to the older model, the new approach recognizes that each child has a unique path to the disorder, and therefore each child’s path to improvement must also be unique. In addition to overcoming symptoms, the goal of treatment in this new model is to help the child master the healthy emotional milestones that were missed in his early development and that we now know are critical to learning. Building these foundations helps children overcome their symptoms more effectively than simply trying to change the symptoms alone.

The modern model has the potential to revolutionize early identification and intervention. In a large health survey conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, the addition of the emotional milestones described in this new model resulted in the identification of 30% more children at risk for developmental problems. And in a review of 200 cases using this new model, a subgroup of children was observed to develop abilities formerly thought unobtainable for children diagnosed with ASD: intimacy with adults and peers, empathy, creative and logical thinking. Families and clinicians need access to this modern approach to identification and treatment that is improving outcomes for children. With this new model, we can do a better job of identifying children at risk even earlier, rather than waiting for symptoms to appear. We can help children become warm, related and engaged. And we can define each child’s potential not by assumed limitations, but by his own growth.

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