Recognizing, treating, and supporting those in need of autistic care
As a young child, Jarrett Moss was different from other children. He wasn’t learning at the same rate as his peers, and his mother, Beverly Hunter, knew something wasn’t right.
Seeing differences in Jarrett, Beverly did what any mother would do — seek answers. “When he went to school, I knew he had attention deficit hyper-activity disorder, but I knew something else was not right,” Beverly says. “He wasn’t learning, and his development wasn’t where it should have been.” She learned that Jarrett, now 12, has an autistic disorder, in addition to Asperger syndrome and epilepsy.
The diagnosis confirmed for Beverly that as a single mom, she wasn’t just imagining something was wrong with her son, and that she — and Jarrett — were going to face challenges throughout his life.
However, for Beverly and other families faced with the challenge of autism, there are local resources for treatment, support, and care. They are not alone.
No parent wants to accept that his or her child isn’t typical, and this fact often can lead to a delay in diagnosis of autism. However, experts say this can be a disservice to the child — and his or her parents. “Research says that the earlier a child is diagnosed, the sooner the parent and pediatrician can start therapy,” says Ellynne Draper, a teacher at Our Children’s Academy, a school for children with special needs in Lake Wales.
There are three autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social communication and behavioral challenges. It is estimated that for every 110 children born, one will have an ASD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ASDs begin before children reach age 3 and last throughout a person’s life, although symptoms may improve over time.
The symptoms of autism even can be present in babies, Draper says. “It may be something to discuss with a pediatrician if your baby avoids eye contact and doesn’t want to be held,” she says.
The characteristics of autism are becoming more widely known, and pediatricians sometimes can diagnose it before a child turns 1, Draper points out. “The earlier you can diagnose it, the sooner you can begin tweaking the child’s environment and perhaps less intervention will be needed when the child is older,” she continues. “The brain of a child with autism works differently than the typical child’s brain. If you start working with children showing early symptoms, you may be able to show the brain that there’s a better way of doing something.”
After receiving an autism diagnosis, it’s crucial to provide the child with treatment. While there is no cure for the disorder, there are means for managing it. “One of the earliest treatments is seeing a speech pathologist,” Draper says. “Even if babies aren’t speaking yet, they will learn to want to communicate and make the proper sounds.”
Dot Kirkland is a speech pathologist at Our Children’s Academy. “Our Children’s Academy has 145 kids ranging from 1 year old to fifth grade, and probably more than 50 percent of them are on the autism spectrum,” she explains. “So many things are involved with speech therapy — working to not only help the child communicate, but also to help them do it in a socially appropriate way and to develop interpersonal social skills.”
Occupational therapy also is important to help children with autism develop fine motor skills and sensory integration. “Children on the autism spectrum can lack the ability to process information about their environment,” Draper says. “Lights can be too bright. Places can be too noisy.”
She also says that some autistic children can have a difficult time with balance, so physical therapy can be helpful. Rosa Garcia, an occupational therapist with Lakeland Regional Medical Center, stresses the symptom differences on the autism spectrum. “Every child is different, and autistic children are no exception,” Garcia says. “It’s important to have an evaluation with therapists to determine the best approach for each child.”
Beverly Hunter says one of the most challenging aspects of having a child with autism is feeling like she’s alone. “Being a single mom, I’m doing this by myself,” she says. “I’m on 24-7. It isn’t easy.” Many parents share Hunter’s concerns.
“They need to know that they aren’t alone,” Draper says. Family and friends can provide support for families with an autistic child by offering respite and encouragement.
“Be patient and don’t let your feelings of awkwardness stop you from spending time with the family,” advises Dr. Daniel Haight, the director of the Polk County Health Department. “There will be ups and downs for a child with autism every day, and the families appreciate your willingness to be involved and learn more.”
“Families of children on the autism spectrum are encouraged to get involved with a local parent support group,” Haight says. Local resources for information and support groups include the Parental Education and Encouragement for Autism in Children Everywhere (PEACE) and the Central Florida Autism Institute Inc. (CFAII) in Lakeland. CFAII has an extensive online listing of local, state, and national autism resources.
Additionally, charter schools like Our Children’s Academy offer support groups and other resources for parents.
Beverly Hunter recently enrolled Jarrett in the Monarch School of Autism in Lakeland. “I think it’s going to be a good fit,” she says. “The first day I took him there, I told them he couldn’t tie his shoes, and they said they would work with him. It’s a good feeling to know he’s at a place that will help.”
story by MEREDITH JEAN MORTON