Local community comes out in support of National Autism Awareness Month
Chances are, you either know someone autistic or know a parent with an autistic child. Autism, also referred to as autism spectrum disorder, is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S., affecting one in every 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April is National Autism Awareness Month and many in the local community are making an effort to shine a spotlight on autism spectrum disorder, focusing on education and acceptance of those on the spectrum.
Nicole King, a board certified behavior analyst with ABC Behavioral in Eagle who works with children with autism spectrum disorder, said it’s important to raise awareness because there’s no “cookie-cutter image of what autism looks like,” which can make it difficult to diagnose.
‘The sooner, the better’
King said children with autism spectrum disorder typically have trouble in three areas: social skills, communication, and restrictive behavior and play. With social skills, a child may have a hard time understand social cues, making friends and playing appropriately with peers. Communication challenges involve speech and language, where a child may be delayed in learning how to speak or have a hard time expressing their needs verbally. Restrictive behavior and play is usually indicated by repetitive body movements, like rocking or spinning, or a strong need for order and routine.
King said a child must present signs in all three areas in order to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Most children on the autism spectrum are diagnosed around or before the age of 3, but some high-functioning children may fly under the radar. Educating parents on the signs of autism is crucial, as early intervention is key to treatment outcomes.
“All the research shows the sooner, the better, and not to wait to see if they’ll grow out of it,” King said. “It also can depend on family involvement, resources available, funding resources and how quickly a child is learning.”
While less prevalent today, the attitude that children will “grow out of” or overcome autism spectrum disorder naturally as they get older is a myth.
King said there is no cure for autism, but with “early intervention and treatment, (the) symptoms can be significantly improved.”
Focusing on strengths and adapting to a ‘new normal’
Kristine Brinkman, instructional coach for the Eagle County Schools Exceptional Student Services Department, is a member of the Eagle County Autism Team. The Autism Team started three years ago with the goal of supporting those with autism spectrum disorder in an educational setting and also helping those who work with young children to better identify the signs earlier. While Brinkman and others on the Autism Team do not diagnose (only specially trained physicians and psychologists can properly diagnose it), they work together to determine if a child may need special testing.
Brinkman said the Autism Team doesn’t just focus on trying to identify children who may be on the autism spectrum. Another big part is highlighting the strengths of students with autism, not just their challenges.
“Many really talented and brilliant people have autism,” Brinkman said. “One unique characteristic of (someone with) autism (is that) they generally have very intense interests and sometimes they become an expert in that interest area and can be very successful in adulthood because of that — they’re very passionate.”
King said when parents learn that their child has autism spectrum disorder it can be a “challenging time, when you’re facing that new normal”, but that treatment and support is available.
“I’ve always said, ‘A diagnosis of autism doesn’t define your child.’ I think that’s an important thing for a parent to hear,” King said.
LIMITED LOCAL RESOURCES
However, here in Eagle County, local resources for children with autism spectrum disorder are still limited. King is the only behavioral therapist offering applied behavior analysis therapy in the area, and parents often have to drive to Denver to get an evaluation or see a specialist. This is something those on the Autism Team are hoping will change.
“It would be great to bring more specialists into the community,” Brinkman said. “I understand why we don’t, but I would love for there to be more resources for families (with autistic children) outside of the school system.”
Some parents in the high country who have children with autism spectrum disorder have difficulty finding funding for treatment and therapy. Silverthorne resident Abby Martinez said her health insurance does not cover all of the therapy her five-year-old son, who has high-functioning needs.
“What I understand is he needs about 30 to 40 hours of aggressive therapy every week,” Martinez said. “(The insurance) won’t cover play therapy because (our therapist) is not a Medicaid provider. In Summit County, we only have a limited amount of therapists up here.”
King said sometimes parents don’t realize that some insurance companies do cover applied behavior analysis therapy, and some children under the age of five may qualify for a Colorado Medicaid waiver or other waivers that provide funding for children with special needs.
KINDNESS AND COMPASSION
Another goal of Autism Awareness Month is to teach children and adults greater acceptance and tolerance toward those on the autism spectrum.
“That’s something we’re hoping to grow,” Brinkman said. “Not only for autism, but for all areas of disability — teaching peers about (other) student’s disabilities and how to support them and how to interact with them.”
When her son has an episode in public, Martinez said she often feels judged by others who don’t understand that her son has autism spectrum disorder.
“One thing that really bothers me is when he’s at the store and he’s having an meltdown, (people) look at me really funny, like ‘Why aren’t you taking care of your kid? Why are they being such a brat?’” Martinez said. “We don’t (always) have control of how our children are going to be reacting in public.”
King suggests that others be sympathetic when they see a parent struggling with an autistic child and that “kindness and compassion goes a long way.”
As autism becomes more prevalent, those involved in raising awareness remind us just how many in the community are affected by the disorder.
“I guarantee everybody knows someone with autism, whether they know it or not,” Brinkman said. “Knowing how to support a person like that, help them be successful in life, is something everybody should know. I’ve yet to meet somebody who didn’t know anyone with autism.”
We may not know what causes autism, but we can still learn to encourage and embrace the people in our lives who are on the spectrum.
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