In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported that approximately 1% of the world’s population has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. They found that, in the United States alone, it affects 1 in 68 births (1.5%).
Unfortunately, the CDC statistics also project that the reported cases are only going to continue to increase. Cases of autism spectrum disorder grew more than119% between 2000 and 2010. It is the fastest-growing developmental disability, the organization reports.
Besides the emotional and mental cost to affected families, there are financial costs as well. The financial costs of autism services — such as health, education, social care, out-of-pocket expenses to families and losses in productivity — to United States citizens are somewhere between $236 and $262 billion each year.
With such a projected increase, more and more families will find themselves affected by the disorder. But a bright spot has been discovered in new findings: They suggest that there are ways to alleviate symptoms via an early intervention on the part of the child’s parents.
Autism Spectrum Disorder
According to the Mayo Clinic, autism spectrum disorder “is a serious neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others. It also includes restricted repetitive behaviors, interests and activities. These issues cause significant impairment in social, occupational and other areas of functioning.”
The wide range of symptoms and severity of them are what make this a “spectrum” disorder. For example, the symptoms that generally comprise what was once known as “Asperger’s syndrome” fall somewhere on the mild side of the autism spectrum.
Currently, there is no known cure for autism spectrum disorder, but studies are now finding that early detection and treatment can be a huge aid to children and families dealing with such a diagnosis.
Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT)
The Preschool Autism Communication Trial (PACT) researched whether early intervention could improve the symptoms of autism in the long run. Participants were from the UK (including London, Manchester and Newcastle) and were initially between 2 and 4 years of age when the trial was first conducted.
About half of the children were entered into the PACT program of 12 therapy sessions over 6 months, followed by support and extension sessions for another 6 months. The other half of the children (all randomized) were given autism treatments per usual.
Most of these initial participants were able to return for the follow-up, which was conducted between 5 and 6 years after the initial PACT was concluded.
What were the interpretation of the findings?
“The results are the first to show long-term symptom reduction after a randomized controlled trial of early intervention in autism spectrum disorder. They support the clinical value of the PACT intervention and have implications for developmental theory.”
Dr. Catherine Aldred, a consultant speech and language therapist with Stockport NHS Trust, told the BBC: “We’re taking the parent’s interaction with the child and taking it to a ‘super’ level. These children need more than ‘good enough,’ they need something exceptional.”
Sometimes the program aid was as simple as helping parents to make the most of shared moments with their autistic children. If the child would start to play with the parent (rather than playing on their own), specialists would help the parent to maximize that moment of interaction. This included not rushing the child to communicate.
Of the children that participated in the therapy sessions, the follow-up revealed that those with severe symptoms of autism dropped from 55% to 46%. Researchers found these statistics “extraordinary.”
Professor Jonathan Green from the University of Manchester and a lead author on the report, said: “This is not a ‘cure’ in the sense that the children who demonstrated improvements will still show remaining symptoms. It suggests that what the parents have been able to embed into the family has sustained even after the end of the therapy, which is really encouraging.”
So, the research findings point to long-term improvements when parents of autistic children are able to work with specialists.
Parents See Results
Tracey Sawyer-Copus was among the parents involved in the PACT intervention and saw positive results in her son, Aaron. She noticed the subtle improvements that may go unnoticed by those not as familiar with Aaron’s situation.
“He had very little speech, if any. He didn’t seem interested in people at all. He didn’t used to play. He used to just line everything up. I knew that the trial was to try and find a way to get them to play anywhere. Then afterwards, they would look at the video: ‘Could you have done this better? Could you have done that?’ But, it was all very positive,” said Sawyer-Copus to the BBC.
“[Aaron] was checking to see if I was doing what he was doing. He would never do that before. And then it became where Aaron was actually leading the playing, and I was copying off him. …very subtle changes. It was lovely to see that he could actually play with toys rather than bang them together. He did what he was supposed to do,” she said.
A couple of weeks before the interview, Aaron did something he never did before and surprisingly accepted a family invitation to a football (“soccer” in U.S.) game. “He’s a bit more sociable now, but he does it on his terms. So, it’s if he wants to be [sociable],” added his mother.
Dr. Max Davie, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, called the report’s findings “a hugely cheering message for families.”
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