A recent report distributed in October 2009 by the Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects one in 91 children in the country and more boys than girls. ASD is part of a group of childhood neuro-developmental disorders that cause impaired verbal communication, social interaction and behavior.
Often unnoticed by parents until their children are school-age, early indicators in toddlers include no babbling or pointing by age one, no single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age two, unresponsive to name, loss of social skills, poor eye contact, excessive lining up of toys or objects, and little or no smiling or social interaction.
Autism was first described as a unique disorder in the 1940s, but has seen a dramatic surge, especially in the last two decades. While scientists aren’t certain about the causes of ASD, there is increased evidence that genetics and environment play key roles in the diagnoses. Studies of children with ASD have shown irregularities in parts of the brain, and abnormal levels of serotonin or other neurotransmitters.
The increase in autism disorders is a cause of rising concern among parents and educators. Despite their concerns, they arm themselves with knowledge and experience, reaching out to professionals and support groups to ensure positive growth of their children.
Maria Heller, a resident of Oceanside and owner of Publicity Plus, is grandmother to Brian, 13, and Jenna, nine. These siblings are at opposite ends of the autism spectrum. Brian has Pervasive Development Disorder; Jenna has Asperger’s Syndrome. While Brian has developmental problems and is described as “quiet, trusting, methodical, and rigid," Jenna is friendly, extremely bright, and has an overactive imagination. Both are mainstreamed in the classroom and are “shadowed” by a second teacher. Brian and Jenna enjoy participating in extracurricular activities. While Brian enjoys voice, drum, piano lessons and bowling, Jenna has a passion for writing and loves piano, drama classes and soccer.
“Brian is physically mature for his age, but in his mind, he’s nine or ten,” explained Heller. “Jenna is overly friendly and has a high reading level—she likes to write stories— and she reads the Bible and newspaper perfectly. Being involved in activities like these has truly helped them."
While there is no cure for ASD, according to a recent report from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in addition to music and recreation, therapies and behavioral interventions help to remedy specific symptoms and can contribute to substantial improvement.