Undoing Autism One Toy at a Time
Timing of Help Is Key continued...
Her son’s diagnosis was a double blow. Just a week earlier, Brown had learned she was pregnant. “I was completely terrified. There’s such a strong genetic component,” she says.
When Brown, who is an occupational therapist, found out about a study for the “baby sibs” of children with autism, she was eager to sign up.
Her youngest daughter, Anna Claire, was 6 months old when she joined the eye-tracking study at Marcus. “She was baby number one in the Atlanta study,” she says.
Thankfully, there were no red flags for Anna Claire. But Brown says the study provided great peace of mind.
“It was exciting to me to know that if something were wrong, if we were heading down the autism path again, we could jump on it as soon as possible,” she says.
Because 85% of the nerve cells in a baby’s brain are set by age 2, it’s important to start treatment from birth to 2 years old, says Jennifer Stapel-Wax, PsyD, director of infant and toddler clinical research operations at the Marcus Center.
Yet kids with autism typically don’t get a diagnosis until age 4 or 5. Minority children lag even a year or 2 behind that.
“If we intervene that late, we’re dealing with the behaviors associated with autism. We’re not actually dealing with autism,” she says. “Those children are already behind in language, they’ve already got pretty pronounced stereotypic behaviors that interrupt their productive learning of other things,” Stapel-Wax says.
And because they have trouble expressing themselves, many have developed what she calls “challenging” behaviors -- temper tantrums, biting, and self-harm -- that become crude ways to communicate. Those habits then become the focus of treatment.
Still, children with autism can almost always be helped, no matter how old they were when they were diagnosed.
The stakes are high. Surveys of young adults with autism suggest that only about half have ever held a job in the decade after they graduated high school. And even when they can get work, it’s often for menial pay. They’re also less likely than kids with other kinds of disabilities to leave home and live on their own.