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Rise in Autism Among Children

February 7, 2013


When I see a kid who's (age) 2, it's hard to know where he'll end up, but we want to blast that kid with intervention.

Dr. Susan Schmidt-Lackner

Medical Director

Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services

When Austin was only 10 months old, Gina Davis knew something was amiss with her son.

He didn’t babble the way her friends’ children did. At age 2, Austin still did not talk. Nor, did he seem to hear his mother’s voice even though his hearing was normal.

At 22 months, Austin was hospitalized for an E. coli infection.

“He really declined after that,” says Davis, who lives near Palm Springs. “He went into his own world.”

By his third birthday, Austin was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder with no known cause or cure.

Austin is one of an estimated 11,500 children under age 9 diagnosed with autism in California.

The rate of autism has tripled among California children since 1987. It’s four to five times more common in boys than girls, and affects all ethnic and economic groups.

Problems communicating

There’s no laboratory or biological test for autism. Doctors identify it by children’s behavior: serious problems communicating and relating to people, along with repetitive behavior patterns.

Some autistic children have much more severe symptoms than others.

Austin, now age 6, still does not speak. He laughs and smiles, but does not cry or seem to feel physical pain, Davis says.

“He cut his foot open one day, and he was just running on it,” Davis says.

When she examined the cut, she found a piece of glass inside.

What Austin does indeed know is how to soothe himself.

“When he’s over-stressed he goes in his room and puts on classical music,” Davis says.

Autism rate soars

Dr. Robert Byrd of UC Davis led a recent state-sponsored study of the reported increase in autism.

He says he expected to find that more kids are now called “autistic” because doctors are diagnosing autism better, or because a wider range of problems are labeled or defined as “autism.”

Instead, he found the truth: more children, in fact, have autism — now it’s one in every 500 children born in California.

On the national level, as of March 2012, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 88 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder, a 23% increase since its 2009 report and a 78% increase since its 2007 report.

Early treatment is critical

Although the causes of autism are unknown, most people agree it’s partly genetic.

Many parents suspect immunizations, but federal studies and a review by the American Academy of Pediatrics found no link between autism and vaccination.

Every child is different — even some who get intensive therapy never speak, says Dr. Susan Schmidt-Lackner, medical director of Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services in Los Angeles, which runs a therapeutic school specializing in autism.

“Other kids will seem almost typical — they’re quirky, but you wouldn’t know they have autism,” Schmidt-Lackner says. “When I see a kid who’s (age) 2, it’s hard to know where he’ll end up, but we want to blast that kid with intervention.”

Kids practice skills

Treatments vary depending on the child, but usually include speech and language therapy as well as occupational therapy, such as learning how to stack blocks, Schmidt-Lackner says.

For Austin, the state disability system paid for occupational therapy, and counselors at the Elk’s Club helped him learn skills like holding a spoon.

After he turned 3 years old, Austin entered a public preschool geared toward autistic children.

Davis says “they learn by repetition” at the school. For example, counselors spent weeks showing Austin how to put two Legos together. Then they moved on to three.

In the same way, they teach Austin how to play.

Parents share information

Davis also got the Regional Center of the California Department of Developmental Services to pay for three hours a day of in-home tutoring.

Davis says parents often don’t realize that Regional Centers will pay for respite care and in-home services. In addition, low-income parents are eligible for social security.

With this information, Davis has been sharing her knowledge of resources with other parents in the Coachella Valley chapter of the Autism Society of America (CVASA), of which she’s now president.

Families need understanding

Sylvia Vann of Fresno says when she takes her 4-year-old autistic son, Alex, out shopping or to church, many people judge his rocking and high-pitched screams as bad behavior.

“You get a lot of criticism,” Vann says. “Then you try to explain autism to someone and they look over your head. My goal is to write a book to make the public aware.”

Vann herself has attended every autism workshop she could since Alex was diagnosed at 18 months.

Now, with occupational and speech therapy, Alex is progressing.

“He’s saying a lot of words,” Vann reports.

Austin, too, has made progress.

He now responds to his mother’s requests and has even joined a game of tag with other children.

“Something is going on in that mind of his, and I would love to know what it is,” Davis says. “But I’m learning. You have to have an unbelievable amount of patience.”

Originally written by Heather World.