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

Sheila Wagner earned her undergraduate education degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a master's degree in education from Georgia State University. A former special education teacher, Wagner is currently an assistant director of the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta and program coordinator for the MONARCH School Program (K-12). She is also project director for a multi-county inclusion project affecting more than 600 students with autism spectrum disorders. She is a nationally recognized consultant on educating students with autism spectrum disorders.

Q: Is it true that early identification and therapy for autism can make a difference in how well a child copes with the disorder? What is the earliest age a parent should start to worry?

A: Early intervention and intensive therapy for autism can make a huge difference in how well children are able to shape their language so they can speak, interact and play with other children and socially connect with family and friends. Intervention at any age, though, regardless of how old people are, can make a difference in their lives by teaching them new and better skills.

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The typical age for diagnosing autism is 4 to 5; with Asperger's, it is older. It is possible to diagnose autism at age 2, but not everyone feels comfortable applying a label that young. But if a child is starting to develop along atypical lines, the situation should be addressed as soon as possible.

Whether a child is meeting early language milestones is one part of diagnosing autism. Parents and professionals should note if a child is babbling on time and saying first words and phrases on time, and they should watch how the child is using gestures. If a child is not doing that level of communicating on time, is not making requests for food, play and hugs and is not socially connecting with the parents, then some assessments should be done to see if the child is on track developmentally.

Q: People now refer to a spectrum of autism. What does that mean?

A: Autism is under the umbrella term "pervasive developmental disorders," which has five subcategories. The ones considered to be the "autism spectrum" are autism, Asperger's and "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified."

Although two children might both meet criteria for an autism diagnosis, they might not resemble each other at all. They will most likely have met different criteria and have very different profiles. The spectrum ranges from very mild to quite severe, so there really are no two individuals with this disorder who are exactly alike. They will have strengths and challenges in different areas. It's not a cookie-cutter diagnosis.

 

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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.

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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

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