10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Autism
- Understanding a Growing ConditionThe number of children identified as being on the autism spectrum has risen dramatically in recent years, increasing by almost 120% between 2000 and 2010. Today, one in every 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). If your child is one of them, or you think he or she might be, here’s what some autism experts want you to know.
- 1. It’s not your fault.Nothing you did caused your child to have autism. Christy Hall, MD, a clinical psychologist at the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University in Atlanta, says, “Many of the families that I work with express the fear that they inadvertently caused their child’s autism symptoms. We know for a fact that parents do not cause autism. We are still learning about the causes of autism spectrum disorder, but we know that it is not caused by any parental behaviors.”
- 2. The sooner you know, the better.Don’t delay having your child tested. Daniel Coury, MD, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at The Ohio State University, says, “We want to start treatment as soon as possible because the earlier the intervention, the better the outcome. Do not give up hope because we have some very good treatments.” Dr. Hall adds, “Children receiving early intervention have shown increases in IQ, language, adaptive behavior, and social behavior. Early intervention can prevent some of the associated symptoms of autism, such as behavioral difficulties, from ever developing.”
- 3. There’s a reason it’s called autism spectrum disorder.The “spectrum” reflects the wide range of autism that exists from mild to severe—and every child is different. “At one extreme we have people who are completely non-verbal,” says Dr. Coury. “At the other end, we have people who are as verbal as you and me, but the content of what they’re saying and how they say it is not providing the kind of effective social communication that you and I have.” Treatment for autism spectrum disorder should be as individual as the child.
- 4. It’s important to know what else is going on with your child.A child who has an autism spectrum disorder often has other conditions that should be treated. Beth Malow, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says, “Sleep disorders, GI problems, seizures, anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, ADD: those are all very common in autism. It’s really important to treat them. Fifty to eighty-five percent of kids with autism have sleep disorders, and when a child is sleeping better, you can oftentimes make a huge difference.”
- 5. A child with autism still has emotions.Not being able to express something is not the same as not feeling anything. “Many of these individuals do want contact,” notes Dr. Coury, “but they don’t know how to reach out for it appropriately because they don’t have good communication. They’re not able to say ‘I love you, Mom,’ or ‘I need a hug.’” New medications are being researched that may help address this problem. Dr. Coury says, “We know that oxytocin promotes a feeling of warmth and helps mothers bond with their babies. Some research is suggesting that oxytocin may help socialization in people with autism.”
- 6. We know a lot about what treatments work.“The treatments that have the best evidence of effectiveness are the behavioral treatments—specifically, applied behavioral analysis techniques, or ABA,” says Dr. Coury. “Those are fairly intensive, usually one-on-one, and the recommendation is for 20 or more hours a week.” Jayne Bellando, MD, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences says, “Just in the past five years, with all of the resources and all of the knowledge we have, we’re able to give families a much more optimistic view. There can be wonderful outcomes.”
- 7. We also know what’s unlikely to work.Dr. Malow cautions against questionable treatments. “There are therapies that are expensive and some of them are potentially harmful to children, like chelation. There are physicians who say that autism is due to too much heavy metals—or vaccines, [a theory that] has been refuted— and the only way to help your child is to give medicines that get rid of the heavy metals. Ask yourself: ‘Is this really valid or is it something I’m turning to because I’m so freaked out and scared for my child?’”
- 8. Take the time you need to learn about autism.Dr. Malow, a parent herself of two children with autism, says, “Number one, don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Don’t say, ‘I have to do 20 things and I have to do them right now,’ but say, ‘What are the things I can do right now?’” According to Dr. Hall, “The most important thing parents can do is to educate themselves. Websites that highlight what’s been shown to be the safest and most effective treatments include the National Autism Center and the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.” Dr. Hall also recommends Autism Navigator and Autism Speaks.
- 9. You are not alone.Finding help for a child with autism can take some legwork, but it’s there. Dr. Bellando advises, “What parents need to do is to get into services.” There are diagnostic services, help with early intervention, and financial assistance. You can also look for the developmental disability services available through the federal government’s Maternal and Child Health Block Grant Program, or Title V, which is offered in every state. Dr. Bellando adds, “Find other parents in support groups, or Facebook groups if you’re not able to go [in person].”
- 10. Understand what autism is–and what it isn’t.“Autism is a part of who your child is, but it isn’t your child,” says Dr. Bellando. “I have brown eyes, but brown eyes do not define me.” Dr. Malow believes that a major misconception is that people with autism “can’t really interact, they don’t have emotion, they have intellectual disability,” he says. “It’s important to recognize that every individual is different and a lot of people can do really well.” Children on the autism spectrum who received intervention at an early age are now reaching young adulthood and, Dr. Malow says, “We will begin to see how great their potential can be.”
10 Things Doctors Want You to Know About Autism