Understanding Autism: The Path to Erasing Stigma


This blog post is part of the Google+ Healthy Hangouts series on breaking and timely health news.

There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding autism. With the uptick in awareness of autism over the past decade, the discussion has also brought with it much confusion.

Parents can easily become overwhelmed when trying to process information, so how can families understand autism without becoming alarmed?

Or more importantly, if their child is diagnosed with autism, where can they turn for help?

David Winter, M.D., President, Chairman and Chief Clinical Officer of HealthTexas Provider Network, recently led a discussion on autism with Cherese Wiley, M.D., internal medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, via a Google+ Hangout.

They were joined by Crystal Beadle, Ph.D., neuropsychologist on the medical staff at Our Children’s House at Baylor in Frisco, and Tracey Wahlenmaier, speech language pathologist on the medical staff at OCH Frisco.

What is autism?

There are three key areas to observe when diagnosing autism: deficits in social interaction, deficits in communication and restricted or repetitive behaviors.

When you have a child who has deficits in all three areas and pervasive developmental delays across settings in all three areas, then the child likely meets the criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.

Why has there been a change in the number of autism diagnoses in this country?

As we have become more accurate in diagnosing autism, it is important to note that autism spectrum disorder affects many more than just significantly impaired children. For that reason, we are seeing an increase in the number of autism diagnoses.

First Steps to Early Intervention

Medical professionals rely on parental observations to help them reach the road to diagnosis. It is critical that parents communicate their children’s behavioral habits to their physicians.

A diagnostic assessment can detect autism as early as 18 months, but it is difficult to accurately diagnose, because a lot of the behaviors associated with autism are typical behaviors for all children.

Infants engage in a lot of self-stimulation behaviors, but that is developmentally appropriate. The difference in children with autism is that those behaviors don’t go away.

What is the cause of autism?

There is no definitive cause of autism. The most prevalent theory is that there is some genetic component and likely an environmental trigger, whether it’s biological, neurological or some type of immune response.

The Vaccine Controversy

Several years ago, a controversial study was released that examined the parallel between the age at which children are vaccinated and when they are diagnosed with autism.

Later on, the paper linking MMR vaccine and autism was proven to be false and was retracted. With heightened awareness surrounding autism, it is important to remember that there is no proven correlation between vaccinations and autism. Vaccinating your children is critical in protecting against deadly diseases.

You can’t die from autism, but you can die from most of the illnesses you are vaccinating your child against. -Crystal Beadle, Ph.D.

How do we treat autism?

The gold-standard treatment is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which seeks to teach kids how to interact with others and to understand the importance of interacting.

It breaks down component parts of each task so the child can learn how to complete other tasks, how to generalize behavior and how to connect with another person. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and participation in social skills groups are all other autism treatment options offered at Our Children’s House at Baylor.

Erasing the Stigma

Autism is a scary word. You think of the media. You think of Rain Man. You think of the child rocking in the corner not talking or making eye contact, but autism is not just the impairment we think of where an individual needs institutional care or life-long care.

There are a lot of highly successful people who are on the autism spectrum that may or may not have that diagnosis.

Be persistent. As a parent, if you have suspicions that your child might be autistic, have a discussion with your pediatrician and get your child tested. We encourage you to connect with a specialist at Our Children’s House at Baylor to further assist you.

About the author

Megan McCook
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Understanding Autism: The Path to Erasing Stigma