What You Should Know About Autism

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    Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder now believed to have a number of causes that manifest in slightly different ways. This range of disorders is known as the autism spectrum. Educational and behavioral interventions can be effective for many of the core difficulties.

    John C. Pomeroy, MD, Founding Director, The Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, and David Makowski, PhD, Director, School Consultation Services, answer questions on this topic.

    How common is autism?

    Recent studies show that as many as one in 100 children are being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Research into the causes has centered on neurobiological changes such as genetic factors and brain development. Most biologic changes appear to have their origins in prenatal development. However, there is question regarding the degree to which environmental factors may also influence the onset of autism.

    What should everyone know about autism?

    ASDs vary greatly, but are chiefly characterized by speech and social difficulties, a tendency toward inflexibility, and repetitive, self-absorbed behavior. Individuals with ASD might be academically gifted or severely intellectually challenged. They tend to communicate, behave, interact, and learn in ways different from their peers, often requiring specialized instruction.

    Although autism is a lifelong disorder, individuals will generally show improvement, which can sometimes be dramatic. In some adolescents and adults, the rate of improvement may be more subtle. Intervention using the principles of behavior and learning theory is very effective in reducing and eliminating challenging behaviors as well as promoting the acquisition of socially appropriate and adaptive behaviors.

    What are some early signs?

    In toddlers 18 months and older, delays in language development and the desire to communicate may be reasons to seek a professional evaluation. Early signs may include: not using gestures to show interest in the external world (for example, not pointing skywards at an airplane); appearing unaware when caregivers speak; not playing pretend games; avoiding eye contact; wanting to be alone; and repeating words, phrases, or actions.

    How is ASD diagnosed?

    Diagnosis is based on information from parents and teachers about the child’s developmental progress, and an assessment from healthcare professionals using a standardized observation scale. Although generally healthy, as many as a third of children at the time of first diagnosis often have associated medical issues requiring further evaluation. These medical issues may include genetic syndromes, gastrointestinal problems, sleep problems, seizures, or hyperactivity.

    Does early diagnosis help?

    Recognizing ASD early and providing intensive interventions can help a child reach full potential. Early intervention targets social and communication skills, an approach that is also helpful in reducing challenging behaviors. Children are taught to learn, play, and socialize, allowing many to attend their local schools.

    What happens when a child with ASD grows up?

    Some adults will need highly structured day habilitation programs, and in some cases, residential care. Others will be able to live more independently in the community and may be able to attain competitive employment, although still limited by many of the core ASD characteristics. Yet others are able to assume fairly independent lives, often completing college or vocational training. These “high functioning” individuals may still experience social or occupational difficulties.

    What distinguishes the Cody Center’s approach to ASD?

    Based at Stony Brook University Medical Center, the Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities is a unique regional resource offering all the comprehensive programs of an academic medical center, including:

    • Multidisciplinary clinical services such as behavioral, psychiatric, psychological, primary care, and medical specialty services
    • An education institute providing graduate-level coursework, including a board certification program in behavioral analysis for professionals in medical, mental health, special education, and other fields, and School Consultation Services for Long Island school districts and agencies
    • Community services including social skills and parent training programs, family support and workshops, sexuality and reproductive health programs, and programs for young persons transitioning to adulthood
    • Clinical, basic, and translational research into the causes and treatment of ASD

    For more information or an appointment at the Cody Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, call (631) 632-3070.

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    All health and health-related information contained in this article is intended to be general and/or educational in nature and should not be used as a substitute for a visit with a healthcare professional for help, diagnosis, guidance, and treatment. The information is intended to offer only general information for individuals to discuss with their healthcare provider. It is not intended to constitute a medical diagnosis or treatment or endorsement of any particular test, treatment, procedure, service, etc. Reliance on information provided is at the user's risk. Your healthcare provider should be consulted regarding matters concerning the medical condition, treatment, and needs of you and your family. Stony Brook University/SUNY is an affirmative action, equal opportunity educator and employer.