For the past 25 years, April has been Autism Awareness Month. Although most people are familiar with the term autism, many people still do not really understand what autism is. For example, a recent poll conducted by the National Alliance for Autism Research revealed that most Americans still don’t know how prevalent it is, how it affects an individual, who it affects, warning signs and available treatments. Even more distressing, as many as a third of Americans continue to connect autism with vaccines.
Currently, Autism Spectrum Disorder affects one in every 68 children. It is a developmental disability that often causes difficulty with communication, social and emotional skills. Autism affects children of all ethnicities, backgrounds and social status. While there are no medical tests that can diagnose autism, there are a range of delays in developmental milestones that may signal the presence of autism. These include early indicators between birth and five years of age that may include no babbling or pointing by age one, no single words by 16 months, no two- word phrases by age two, no response to hearing their own name, poor eye contact, no smiling, minimal language or social skills, excessive lining up of toys or objects, and other similar repetitive behaviors. Later indicators may include difficulty making friends, absence or deterioration of imaginative and social play, repetitive or unusual use of language, difficulty having conversations, and inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
Despite widespread claims by some that vaccines are at least partly responsible for autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control, this is not
the case. Since 2003, there have been nine CDC center funded or conducted studies that have found no link between vaccines (including measles, mumps, and rubella) and Autism Spectrum Disorder in children. While the exact cause of autism has yet to be determined, it has been proven that autism is not caused by vaccines.
Because early intervention improves outcomes for those diagnosed with autism, it is essential that we break down barriers to a diagnosis, including the stigma that many parents face on their child’s behalf. The most promising intervention is Applied Behavior Analyses therapy, an evidenced-based practice that applies reinforcement principles to everyday situations in order to, over time, increase or decrease particular behaviors and improve language skills, non- verbal communication, peer interactions, daily living skills, ability to follow instructions and cognitive skills.
The Michigan legislature has mandated that individuals between eighteen months and 21 years of age who are covered by Medicaid and MIChild be provided with ABA services. St. Clair County Community Mental Health operates a center-based ABA program in Port Huron. CMH staff work with parents and area schools to facilitate learning opportunities in all settings. Educational opportunities for parents to learn more about how to assist their child with autism are also available. At 6 p.m. April 26, the public is invited to attend a free workshop at the SCCCMH administration building in Port Huron. The workshop, “What Do I Do Tomorrow: Five Key Steps for Supporting A Person with Autism” will be presented by Alyson Beytien, who is a national autism expert and mother of three sons with autism. Additionally, a local Autism Support Group meets monthly at SCCCMH to provide support for parents and guardians who have a family member with autism. It is up to each and every one of us to advocate for autism awareness. If you would like more information about ABA therapy, would like to register for the upcoming autism workshop, or would like more information about the Autism Support Group, please contact SCCCMH at (810) 985-8900. Debra Johnson is executive director of St. Clair County Community Mental Health.