Monday Medical: Changing awareness to acceptance
April 10, 2016
April is Autism Awareness month, but Dr. Roseanne Iversen thinks the focus should be on more than just awareness — it should also be on acceptance.
"I think we need to move beyond awareness," Iversen said. "Yes, people with autism can struggle with social and verbal communication, and yes, they can have some unusual behaviors, but society has to allow someone to sit there and flap and say, 'No big deal.'
"We need to accept that behavior, and we need to support them and help them with therapies for communication. You have to support the weaknesses, but yet, you have to embrace their gifts."
Iversen has been a family physician in Steamboat Springs since 1992, is a board member of the Yampa Valley Autism Program and is the mother to a young adult with autism spectrum disorder.
About 1 in 68 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism has a range of effects: It might be very subtle, or it might be very obvious.
One thing is clear — in many cases, people with autism are highly intelligent, with roughly half having an above average IQ.
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"I want people to view it as a trapped brain," Iversen said. "Those with autism are those that are inventors and change the world."
Individuals with autism may struggle with social communication, speech, understanding body language, making eye contact, high anxiety and sensory sensitivity, while also exhibiting unusual behaviors, such as rocking and flapping or having a narrow but intense range of interests.
Those with verbal abilities may be described as little professors with adult vocabularies but have difficulty interacting with peers their own age. Many suffer from severe anxiety about ordinary things or can't tolerate noises or may have clothing restrictions.
Iversen worries that parents who fear a possibility of autism might make risky choices, such as skipping important immunizations. She points out that science has found many genes linked to autism, and strides have been made in treating it.
Early intervention is key.
"The younger that brain is, the more plasticity there is," Iversen said.
Fortunately for families in Northwest Colorado, the Yampa Valley Autism Program helps provide effective therapies, such as behavioral therapy and social cognition therapy. One of Iversen's sons has autism spectrum disorder and worked with Yampa Valley Autism Program for six years. Now, he's excelling at a tough college.
"It's amazing what the Yampa Valley Autism Program does," Iversen said. "There are cities that don't have programs as strong as our program."
The aim isn't to cure autism; it's similar to high blood pressure, which doesn't just disappear, but instead, is treated.
"We're not making it go away," Iversen said. "In fact, we want the beauty of that gift."
A number of famous people have had autism spectrum disorder, including Temple Grandin, Dan Akroyd, Bill Gates and Albert Einstein.
With support and intervention, individuals with autism can develop the skills to function more easily in society. Society, Iversen believes, should meet them halfway.
That might mean learning about what interests a child with autism and using that interest in teaching. For example, a child who loves technology may get to research the evolution of technology for a group project in history.
It might also mean encouraging a child to reach out to another child with autism.
"If kids could … get to know the person with autism, they would find a fascinating, loyal friend," Iversen said. "Acceptance means befriending these kids, too."
This month, Iversen hopes people won't just be aware of autism, but will take steps toward accepting it.
"Maybe we can realize we all have different types of brains, (then ask) how do we all get along together in our world?" she said. "Those with autism feel like they were born into the wrong planet, because it's so foreign to them … and we ask them to adapt. Let's help them be part of our world, but let's meet them halfway."
For more information on the Yampa Valley Autism Program, visit yampavalleyautism.org. Iversen recommends two books on autism: "The Reason I Jump," written by a non-verbal autistic teen, Naoki Higashida, as well as "NeuroTribes," by Steve Silberman.
YVMC's Pediatric Therapy Services provides physical, occupational and speech-language therapies and is dedicated to providing quality, family-centered care for the growth of children of all ages. For more information, visit yvmc.org/pediatric-therapy or call 970-879-8826.
Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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