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Autism a puzzling disorder

By Staff | May 24, 2008

At times it may be unrecognizable, but there are many faces of autism. A toddler who grows angry when expressing hunger. A 40-year-old man who spends hours memorizing an atlas only to reference it against the addresses of everyone he meets on the street. A young boy, in a corner alone, methodically arranging various blocks by color.

According to Autism Speaks, an advocate organization, the disorder is more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, although some people continue to misunderstand that it exists within a varying spectrum.

Unlike conditions which have specific physical characteristics, autism’s effects are neurological, ranging from a person who is completely unable to speak or communicate and is acutely sensitive to touch, to a one who won’t make eye contact or will talk in a robotic manner.

Only in the last decade has there been more awareness of this disorder — which affects a person’s ability to communicate and relate to others, and is associated with rigid routines and behaviors. In the past, people with autism were labeled as shy, withdrawn or peculiar, even though as adults many of them have higher-than- average intelligence.

Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, is one of the spectrum disorders that has less severe symptoms than other forms of autism.

“Based on what we know of Asperger’s, I could give you a list of people who would’ve been diagnosed,” said Dr. Renee Terrasi, head of the Peace by Piece Learning Center in Fort Myers.

Famous historical figures such as Albert Einstein and, perhaps, Sir Isaac Newton, were believed to exhibit symptoms that would fall under Asperger’s. Those who are diagnosed with this type are more independent and self-sufficient.

Inside the school system, children with autism are commonly put into classes designed for students who have severe emotional or behavior problems after they lash out because of their inability to communicate.

Terrasi explained that many parents have to act as advocates and fight for opportunities for their children in the school system. Obtaining medical insurance to provide these children with treatment and therapy is one of these fights, with many insurance companies not offering coverage for this precarious disorder.

On Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law the “Window of Opportunity Act,” that expands insurance coverage for the treatment of autism. The bill will authorize a workgroup to negotiate with insurance carriers to mandate autism coverage and, according to the governor’s office, will include coverage under Medicaid.

Christine Whalen, a grandmother of three children in Cape Coral who have autism, said it has been difficult receiving the coverage for one of her granddaughter, who needs a prescription for her aggressive behavior.

It was particularly difficult for her granddaughter to schedule a visit with a mental health professional because many psychologists and psychiatrists won’t accept Medicaid, said Whalen. Instead, they brought her to the Ruth Cooper Center in Fort Myers.

“There are different types of Medicaid and not all of them qualify,” said Whalen. “You aren’t going to find any private professionals that are going to take Medicaid, so you go to Ruth Cooper that has one psychologist and wait months.”

Incidences of the

neurological disorder

Over the last decade the rate of people being diagnosed as autistic has increased from one in every 166 people to one in every 150. Autism Speaks estimates the rate has increased each year by 10 to 17 percent and even more striking is that it’s four times more likely to occur in boys than girls.

And while there are more diagnosed cases than ever, researchers have only been able to come up with theories as to the reason of its rising prevalence.

Certain researchers have pointed to a connection between some children’s vaccines that contained Thimerosal, a mercury based preservative, and the development of autism. As a result, many parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children out of fear of these unknown side effects.

The mercury preservative has been banned from being used on children younger than 6 months, but thousands of children in the United States have already been inoculated with vaccines containing Thimerosal.

“They give the babies a lot of vaccines before the age of 2,” said Whalen. “There are many families who will not put vaccinations in their children.”

According to Whalen, many parents are trying to be officially recognized by the county as following a certain religion so they won’t be mandated to vaccinate their children before school begins.

“They want to give kids a vaccine for everything. It’s kind of scary,” she said.

Terrasi said she believes that there are many factors as to why a child would develop autism including environment, genetics and, potentially, vaccinations.

“There are environmental factors that may contribute to autism” Terrasi said. “It is also part hereditary, just like if you have a history of cancer in your family, chances are you may have it.”

While a child’s genetic makeup could increase their likelihood of developing autism, she said, it may take as little as a vaccination to activate whatever dormant gene is associated with developing the disorder.

Another study from the University of Texas in April 2008 indicated a significant connection between the amount of mercury exposed to children living near a coal-fired power plant and the amount of children with autism. Later, some parents living in Dallas protested the building of three new plants near the community.

An alternative to the public school system

The Peace by Piece Learning Center in Fort Myers is an alternative school in Fort Myers for children who are autistic. Terrasi used her own funds to open the school in January and currently has five students who receive funding from the McKay Scholarship.

At the school she uses behavior modification techniques to educate the students on how to communicate verbally and non-verbally — skills taken for granted by most people. They use a verbal behavior approach that teaches the child to be able to request what they want, label everything in their environment, read and write.

They also use an errorless learning style, where they prompt the child to learn a certain subject while doing a certain task, and then transfer the task to them so they can use it on their own. For instance, Terrasi or her staff will continually prompt a child to identify a cookie, then allow them to do so independently of the prompt.

“This is the only scientifically proven method for teaching kids with autism,” said Terrasi.

She said they recognize the fact that every outburst or act of aggression has an antecedent, or an event that caused the behavior.

Therefore they choose not to reinforce a child’s negative actions, a technique that is used on an everyday basis by parents not rewarding their children for misbehaving.

While the school supports children from kindergarten to grade 6, Terrasi said there needs to be an intervention for any child with autism as early as possible.

In some cases, symptoms can be seen as early as eight months, she said, but they would be far more difficult to detect.

“Usually around 2 or 3 is the earliest for diagnosis,” said Terrasi. “But the research shows that the earlier you intervene the better.”

Autistic students who stay in the traditional classroom could exhibit severe behavior problems or develop low self-esteem, she added.

“If you can’t socialize or don’t pick up on people’s non-verbal signs your self esteem goes down,” said Terrasi.