Local autism center works amid nationwide rise in cases

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated one in 88 children in the U.S. is currently living with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), marking a 23 percent increase since the last report was issued in 2009. The findings were released March 29, just days before Autism Awareness Month, a national observance since the 1970s, began in April. The CDC's findings reinforce the efforts of advocates for autism awareness who are working to increase the dialogue surrounding the condition and educate the public about autism and related issues. Those advocates include Melissa Hunter, a psychologist with Dickinson Mental Health Center's Possibilities Autism Center, who offered her clinical perspective on the increase in American children with autism. "There's not a clear answer. There's a lot of research being conducted right now, looking at genetic and environmental variables. Research looking at, is there a specific genetic marker? What they seem to be finding so far is that there is a genetic piece but it's not particularly clear what that is," Hunter said. "There's other research looking at, is there an environmental trigger, and again there is just no clear evidence about exactly what that is, but the theory is that there is some sort of genetic susceptibility and probably some sort of environmental interaction that nobody is really clear on what those pieces are just yet." ASD, once an obscure disorder, has become a globally and clinically recognized developmental disability. As Hunter explained, some believe the rise is attributable not necessarily to a greater presence or more instances of the condition, but rather an increase in which the characteristics are recognized by doctors and diagnosed. "There are also some people who believe that part of the increase in prevalence is related to our ability to identify autism more accurately and differentiate from other diagnoses a little bit better. I don't think that accounts for the significant rise that we've seen, but probably does account for some of the rise in cases of autism," Hunter said. Hunter said that prior to the refinement of the diagnostic process involving ASD, a child with autism would have been classified as having "intellectual abilities, learning disabilities, or behavior problems, or mood disorders. It could have been any variety of things." "The difficulty is that you could have autism and still have some of those other diagnoses. There's a lot of co-morbidity and teasing those apart can be difficult. But the result has been a lot of research in that area looking into the specific diagnostic features for autism," Hunter said. Hunter stressed the importance of early diagnosis and intervention for children preschool-aged and younger, and urged parents concerned that their child may be exhibiting signs of autism not to delay in having their child tested. "We know that the sooner a child is diagnosed and the sooner we get them into good services, the better the outcomes tend to be in the long run. Our hope is that we can always see kids (who are) younger, but we certainly see a lot of kids who are older and maybe had different diagnoses and maybe were misdiagnosed. A good portion of our clients fall into that category," Hunter said. She said while there is no known cause or cure for ASD, treatments are available, including applied behavior analysis strategies, sensory integration therapies, and speech language therapies, all meant to address the individual underlying developmental disorders of a child with ASD. "Once there is an evaluation, we look at that child's strengths and needs and we work with the family on what's the best support. So, is that wrap-around services, is that working with the school district, or is that occupational therapy, and usually it's some combination of all of the above. Families with kids who have autism are often involved in several types of services," Hunter said. Hunter said that interaction and exchanging of information between Possibilities and a child's school occur both before and after an evaluation or diagnosis. "We make sure we're sharing information from our reports and providing any information we can and gathering information from the school so we're all on the same page," Hunter said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines Autism Spectrum Disorder as "a broad group of developmental disorders characterized by impaired social interactions, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, or severely limited activities and interests."Pick up a copy of the Thursday, April 5, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.