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What you Need to Know About Autism

Submitted by on April 8, 2013 – 4:12 pmNo Comment

Autism Awareness

April is Autism Awareness Month – What You Need to Know

by Jennifer Morrison, Ph.D.

Pediatric Neuropsychologist-Our Children’s House at Baylor

Over the past decade, awareness of autism has reached a fever pitch. Although this awareness is needed, it can bring with it much confusion—especially for the parents of young children who are constantly exposed to media coverage and new research studies about the condition. So how can parents process this information without becoming alarmed or overly concerned? Or more importantly, if their child is diagnosed with Autism, where can they turn for help?

First, it’s important to know that when a child displays signs and symptoms of autism, it is possible for them to have one of several potential diagnoses including Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). There has been speculation in the media about the different signs of Autism and the age at which they can present, but it should be noted that while a child can display behavior commonly associated with these conditions, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have it.

The early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) include various severity levels of:

  • impaired language
  • behaviorial tendancies such as limited eye contact
  • repetitive actions including hand flapping or hyper focused visual attention
  • social skills deficits such as inappropriate behavior, poor relationships, inability to deal with transitions and environmental changes
  • marked impairments in daily functioning at home, school, and in the community

Given that that any of these deficits are possible without meeting criteria for an ASD, it is important that trained professionals guide the process of diagnosis. Careful consideration and thorough evaluation are needed prior to making the statement that a child meets criteria for an ASD, as this is a lifelong disability that will impact all areas of daily functioning.

In order to be diagnosed with an ASD, a child must undergo a comprehensive assessment including evaluation of intellectual, language, social/behavioral, and adaptive skills. Additionally, evaluations explore other criteria like assessment of sensory processing, fine motor and visual perceptual skills, gross motor abilities, and neurocognitive profiles and learning styles.

In order to fully assess all of these areas, multiple professionals are needed. Fortunately, families here in North Texas have access to specialized clinics made up of highly-trained specialists at Our Children’s House at Baylor (OCH). With nine outpatient clinics located throughout the Metroplex, OCH staffs professionals in every discipline needed to manage the diagnosis and treatment of ASD:  Neuropsychology, speech-language pathology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

Although it is possible for a neuropsychologist/psychologist to assess for and diagnose ASD’s alone, it is always best to have insight from experts in other therapy disciplines. The multidisciplinary teams at OCH not only handle the diagnosis process, but provide ongoing support for children and families in treatment.

Finally, parents should know that simply stating that a child has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum is not nearly descriptive enough to allow parents, teachers, therapists, family, and friends to conceptualize the child’s abilities and needs. Each child is different.  Assessments should be driven by a focus on interventions, access to appropriate therapy techniques, social support and family training resources, educational planning, and vocational and career placement. That’s why facilities like OCH seek to provide the highest quality of care to the child regardless of the diagnosis. This includes addressing the direct needs of the child and areas of concern for the family, school, and community agencies serving the family. Those who work with children diagnosed with an ASD should seek to educate doctors, parents, and school staff that it is never too early to intervene, that there is no such thing as too thorough of an assessment, and that each child with an ASD is special and should be treated as such.

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