Monday Medical: What to do about labels

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April is Autism Awareness Month

Yampa Valley Medical Center and the Yampa Valley Autism Program are co-sponsoring an Autism Parent Forum, led by Dr. Sheila Fountain from Pediatrics of Steamboat and Janna Marxuach, founder of the Yampa Valley Autism Program. The forum will be held Thursday, April 5 at 6 p.m. in YVMC's conference room 1. Presenters will discuss the diagnosis of autism, available therapies and how families cope.

Imagine that your child is about 18 months old and you have just been told that he has an illness. The doctors and researchers don't know how to cure it, they're not exactly sure how your son got it, but they do know that if he takes prescribed medication every day he will have a 75 percent chance for a better life.

Would you give your child that medication? Would you explain your child's illness to family and friends so that they could help you?

Believe it or not, there are many who would say no because they do not want their child to be labeled with an illness. They might deny their child a decent future because they don't want it pointed out that he or she just might be a bit different.

I am speaking of autism. And the medication I refer to is early intervention.

All too frequently I hear parents making statements like, "Oh, he'll grow out of it," or "I don't want my child labeled." Once I even heard, "I figure if she doesn't grow out of it by 6 then I'll look into it."

I'm sorry to be blunt, but by then, it's too late. By waiting, you are doing your child an incredible disservice.

Labels can actually be a positive in your life. Is your child a "boy" or a "girl?" An "athlete" or a "bookworm?" The unfortunate product of not identifying and treating children's difficulties at an early age is that as months and years go by they often receive the inappropriate label of "problem child" or "troublemaker."

Kids with Asperger Syndrome - an autism spectrum disorder - are especially prone to this mislabeling and consequent improper intervention. With a proper diagnosis comes proper intervention.

I'm not saying that every quirk a toddler has should be a reason to panic. Of course not. Toddlers are a goofy bunch. What I am saying is that when a pediatrician or preschool teacher or even a friend recommends that you have your child evaluated, listen to them. They just may be seeing something different than what your loving eye is taking in.

It's easy to find lists of developmental milestones for children and the warning signs of autism. How does your child match up?

Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results of a multi-state study on the prevalence of autism. A staggering one out of every 150 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. From this same study researchers were able to determine that the average age of diagnosis is 5 years old.

An average age of 5 for diagnosis is unacceptable. Studies have shown that early diagnosis and intervention can reduce long-term care by two-thirds. This is crucial to the health and well-being of these children and their families.

Plenty of studies have shown the type of brain connections that are formed during the first few years of a child's development. In children with autism, the brain is not making these connections properly. But with therapy such as Applied Behavioral Analysis (often called ABA) and several other techniques now being used, autistic children are able to develop some of these connections.

Early intervention is defined as 25 to 40 hours weekly of individualized and appropriate therapy services starting as soon as the child is diagnosed. The difficult news is that these therapies work best before the age of 5.

So remember that the number of children with autism is on the rise. The only way to help is with early diagnosis and intervention.

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