Monday Medical: Autism awareness begins early

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Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life. It is a spectrum disorder that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

Developmental disorders have subtle signs and may be missed easily. During National Autism Awareness Month in April - and year-round - the Yampa Valley Autism Program wants parents to know the importance of early detection and early treatment.

Autism is a growing problem, and it is prevalent here in the Yampa Valley. On a national level, one out of every six children is diagnosed with a developmental disorder and/or behavioral problem. About one in 94 boys is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

There are some common myths and misperceptions about autism. Many children with autism do make eye contact; it may just be less often or in a different way. They frequently can and do show and give affection. Many children can learn and develop good functional communication and independent living skills.

Although children do not outgrow autism, symptoms may lessen as the child receives appropriate treatment in order to lead full and productive lives.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all healthy children be screened for developmental delays at 18 and 24 months of age. Parents of toddlers are encouraged to request a developmental screening at their next well-child checkup.

Of course, parents should consult a healthcare provider if they have concerns about their children at any age.

There are classic early signs of autism spectrum disorders. If a child shows any of these signs, please see a pediatrician or family health provider for an immediate evaluation.

Impairment in social interaction:

- Lack of appropriate eye gaze

- Lack of warm, joyful expressions

- Lack of sharing interest or enjoyment

- Lack of response to name

- Limited interest in peer relationships

- Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play

Impairment in communication:

- Lack of showing gestures

- Lack of coordination of nonverbal communication

- Unusual prosody (little variation in voice pitch, odd intonation, irregular rhythm, unusual voice quality)

Repetitive behaviors and restricted interests:

- Repetitive movements with objects

- Repetitive movements or posturing of body, arms, hands, or fingers

- Persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

With proper intervention, a child can overcome a wide range of developmental problems. Intensive, well-designed, timely intervention can improve the prospects - and the quality of life - for many children who are considered at risk for cognitive, social or emotional impairment.

Even children with conditions such as autism, once thought to be virtually untreatable, can make measurable progress with effective intervention. Well-implemented programs can brighten a child's future and make a positive impact on the entire family.

Identification is essential for intervention. Early and appropriate intervention can be the key to greater independence, increased participation in the wider community and, ultimately, a more productive and fulfilling life as an adult. But without identification through screening, a child may not receive the early and intensive interventions he or she needs.

This help is available locally. The Yampa Valley Autism Program provides resources, family support funding and respite programs for many children and adults on the autism spectrum.

A child does not have to have a definitive diagnosis to receive services from this nonprofit organization. YVAP works with children who display some red flags for autism and would benefit from services.

The program also includes individuals who have related disabilities such as Fragile X syndrome or severe sensory processing disorder.

The Yampa Valley Autism Program shares the "Little House" on Pine Grove Road with Pediatric Therapy Services of Yampa Valley Medical Center. Please don't hesitate to call us at 870-4263 for information on our programs and resources for children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities.

Beth Staunton, MS, OTR, is a Yampa Valley Medical Center occupational therapist who works with children at "The Little House."

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