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Expert Q & A: Autism with Sheila J. Wagner, M.Ed

Coping With and Treating Autism

Q: How can I cope with the fact that my autistic child is not going to be able to do or say the things I always thought were normal for a child to be able to do or say?

A: Autism is a tough disability for families to accept. Many families embrace the issues immediately and get the therapy needed to make changes in behaviors and improve language and social interactions. Other families enter a long grieving process. Parents need to take it at their own rate. Even if a child has autism, this is still a child to be nurtured, and the child is still a part of the family. It is a lifelong disability, but with support and a lot of work, many people with autism can fit into their community, hold jobs, have friends, live independently and do all the things a parent would hope for.

Q: What new technologies and treatments are showing promise in helping people live with autism?

A: Using positive behavior programs is very successful. That means teaching a child a skill in a systematic manner and then rewarding the child when he or she performs that skill correctly, rather than just punishing the child for not having that skill. For some children, a good reward might be time to read a book; for others, it could be watching a movie, spending time alone or eating ice cream.

Punishment-oriented styles of therapy don't work as well, often decrease self-esteem and can even create behavior problems. Speech therapy can help improve and develop language. Social-skills therapy helps children learn how to play with others. Many need support from the schools to help them understand their academic lessons. And they will need jobs as they enter the adult world so their interests need to be analyzed and built upon.

Sometimes it seems as if a new therapy is advertised every day. The main recommendation to parents is to be comfortable with what they do with their child and to be sure that the therapy has research behind it that proves its effectiveness. There are a lot of snake-oil salesmen targeting desperate parents who would do anything to improve their child's life.

Q: Will our children be able to hold jobs when they grow up?

A: A great many jobs are possible for a person with autism. There are authors, professors, geneticists, computer analysts, gardeners, mechanics, data entry people, librarians and more who have autism. The person's IQ, training and behaviors will help determine what type of job he or she has, but their social skills will determine whether they keep that job and whether they will have a circle of friends. I always tell parents, "You shoot for the stars. This child can learn and can go on and do a lot of things in this world."

For more information about autism, see the links on the next page.

Last updated August 2008