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Published on April 02, 2018

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For Kids with Autism, Early Treatment Can Make All the Difference

Evidence-based approaches to helping kids with autism work well, and the earlier these treatments begin, the better off most children who face autism spectrum disorders (ASD) will be.

Approximately one in every 68 children faces the challenges that come with ASD. This group of developmental disorders affects boys almost five times as often as girls, but the emotional and communications challenges that come with ASD can be addressed.

“Autism affects people across all lines – socioeconomic, cognitive ability, race and gender, but treatment can help meet patients’ social, emotional and behavioral needs,” said Julia Alzoubaidi, PhD, a licensed child and adolescent psychologist with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates. “Autism spectrum disorders affect social communication and social interaction, and people who have them also have restrictive, repetitive thoughts and/or behaviors. Difficulties with social communication can mean limited showing and sharing, or struggles with back-and-forth conversations.”

Signs and Definitions

Alzoubaidi said that people who have ASD also may have difficulty using eye contact or gestures in conjunction with speech and their social interaction difficulties can include difficulty understanding what type of behavior is appropriate in specific social settings. Many also have challenges making friends, and their restrictive thoughts, sometimes couple with restrictive behaviors, often appear as a troublesome ability to accept change, repetitive play or behavior. Another example of an autism symptom is an overly rigid style of thinking.

Since the 1960s, ABA therapy focuses on learning principles to help patients act in ways that are more productive in their environment. Other approaches can include behavioral modeling, including peer models or video depictions. Some people who are on the autism spectrum that have difficulties with spoken language can get support and learn to use visually based approaches to communication. Supportive resources that allow them to develop the way they interact with others can be of great benefit.

“Over the last five years, practitioners who serve patients with autism have classified the diagnosis based on a range of symptoms,” Alzoubaidi said. “A scale from 1 to 3 is used, with people who need less support having a lower score on the scale. When we use evidence-based approaches as treatment, we can greatly improve functioning and behavior. For many individuals with autism spectrum disorders, therapies such as speech and language therapy as well as occupational therapy also are extremely helpful in addressing their needs.”

Early Identification for ASD

What was once called Asperger’s syndrome now is classified under the autism spectrum. Autism spectrum disorders often show up in the first three years of life, but Alzoubaidi said any parent with concerns should discuss them with their pediatrician or family medicine provider.

“It can be diagnosed as early as 18 months, but there are also cases when ASD is not diagnosed until much later,” she said. “Pediatricians and primary care providers who work with children have resources and effective screening tools to better assess for the possible presences of an autism spectrum disorder. Avera Behavioral Health also has started a diagnostic clinic to help determine whether a child or adolescent might have an autism spectrum disorder.

Stripping Myths Away

Like all mental health considerations, stigma still makes some parents worry about taking these steps. Yet timely treatment is an important step in the right direction.

“Like any developmental disorder, the earlier the problem is identified and treated, the better, because the research shows that when we can start helping children, they can do better and the ASD may not interfere with their lives as much,” she said. “Autism is not about too much TV or too many video games, and it’s not about poor parenting. Those myths are just that – false. We are trying to sweep those fables away and help people realize treatment can help their child.”

Avera Behavioral Health care teams began a social skills training group last winter, and in it Alzoubaidi and a speech-pathology professional work with young patients to help them develop tools they can use to improve their social relationships and social thinking.

“ASD conditions do not ‘go away’ but we can help people who face them – along with their families and peers – to develop the skills that lead to a higher quality of life, with less interference from the disorders,” Alzoubaidi said.

You can learn more about these programs and other resources for children with autism online.

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