One in 88. That is the stunning statistic defining how many American children have autism, based on recent research.
While scientists are unsure whether autism incidence is increasing due to environmental causes, genetic predisposition or simply increased awareness leading to more cases being diagnosed, the growing number of children with autism is creating an ever-increasing need for services. And these services should be provided as soon as possible in order to help children with autism reach their intellectual and social potential.
Educators are among those who stress the importance of early intervention. “Children are being diagnosed with autism as young as 18 months,” says Kathy Gagnepain, principal of Howard Park Center, which offers preschool and elementary school programs specially designed for children with autism. “As scary as it might be for a parent to seek an evaluation if they notice their child isn’t reaching typical developmental milestones, the sooner the child is assessed and diagnosed, the sooner they can start receiving specialized assistance.”
In fact, Gagnepain is pleased when a child matriculates from Howard Park Center into a traditional school setting. She credits these successes to the kind of early intervention children receive in the center’s Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention (EIBI) Classroom, a 28-hour per week class that introduces children to Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), an educational approach using positive reinforcement and other techniques to help children develop skills in communication, social relationships, play, self-care and classroom behaviors.
The importance of early intervention for autism is echoed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC promotes early diagnosis and describes ABA as ‘a notable treatment approach’ that ‘encourages positive behaviors and discourages negative behaviors in order to improve a variety of skills.’ The Howard Park Center EIBI classroom offers students as young as 2 years one-on-one educational and behavioral interventions.
Parents work closely with educators to reinforce classroom messages and techniques, and new technologies are helping children with autism learn to communicate sooner, Gagnepain adds. For instance, iPads are being used as communication tools for children who are nonverbal.
Parents who are concerned about the financial burdens of special educational programs should be aware that help is available. Sheila Charlton is VP of financial assistance, scholarships and grants for Action for Autism, a nonprofit organization formed in 2008 to offer financial assistance to families within a 250-mile radius of St. Louis. “There are five main areas in which we provide help: therapy; education and scholarship; equipment needs; assessments; and special camps, classes and programs,” she says.
Action for Autism works with Howard Park Center as well as the American School, which serves children with autism who are in junior and senior high school grades. In addition, the organization developed a pediatric partnership program that offers therapy for children in school and in the community. She estimates that there are currently between 60 and 70 children receiving therapy services through the program.
“I’ve seen tangible results from early intervention,” Gagnepain adds. “Taking that first step toward help is crucial, and there are local resources available. “I came to this profession as a parent of a child with autism, so I know it can be difficult and frightening. But I would tell all parents not to let fear hold them back. Take action.”