Autism is a lifelong condition that usually can be diagnosed by age 3. Early diagnosis and treatment can lessen its impact.
Solemn brown eyes. That’s the first thing you notice about 3-year-old Adam. These eyes regard you for a moment, then his gaze returns to the toy truck in front of him.
It’s remarkable that Adam looks at you at all. He is not your average 3-year-old. Adam has severe autism.
When he was about a year-and-a-half, his parents watched Adam freefall into autism. He stopped babbling. He didn’t want to be held. He didn’t respond to his name. He didn’t smile. He had retreated into his own world.
Now Adam can ask for a ride in his wagon, sit quietly to watch his favorite movie and give his mother a hug. Through special techniques called early intervention, Adam is starting to reach out from his isolated world.
But these milestones did not come easily. Early intervention for young children with autism is hard work disguised as play.
Autism is a complex brain disorder that interferes with normal development of communication and social skills. Children with autism often ignore other people, prefer to be alone and play in odd, repetitive ways. A game like peek-a-boo may not interest a child with autism because it involves too much interaction with other people.
Autism is one of a group of conditions called autism spectrum disorders. These disorders share similar symptoms that can range from severe (in classic autism) to mild (in Asperger syndrome). Autism spectrum disorders are three to four times more common in boys than in girls.
Autism is a lifelong condition that usually can be diagnosed by age 3 or even earlier. Experts don’t know what causes it, and it can’t be cured. But early intervention techniques can lessen its impact and help a child live a more normal life.
The importance of early intervention
The first three years of life are a period of rapid growth for a baby’s brain. At birth, the brain is only about one fourth of its adult weight. By age 3, the brain has created billions of cells and hundreds of trillions of connections between these cells, forming a complex control center for sight, hearing, movement, taste, touch, thinking and feeling.
This is why early intervention with autism is important. Research shows that early diagnosis and treatment can have a major positive impact on later skills and abilities. Early, intensive training gives a child the best possible start on life.
Building the basics
Three-year-old Adam is learning to talk, interact, play, learn and care for his needs. A normally developing child learns these skills by imitating adults and other children. A child with autism has to be taught skills that other kids learn on their own.
Adam is severely language-delayed. Before he began early intervention therapy, he couldn’t process what was said to him and couldn’t tell his mother what he needed. Many children with autism will cry and scream because they can’t communicate their needs. Some hurt themselves. Others, like Adam, simply withdraw.
Now Adam can choose from a collection of photos of playthings, such as a wagon or swing. He picks a card and slides it into a special machine that says the word “wagon.” He tries to say the word but only manages a syllable. As a reward, he gets to ride in the wagon.
Slowly, through hours of structured learning games like this, Adam is starting to build the skills he needs to interact with others. His parents know that Adam has a long road ahead of him. But they have hopes that he’ll be able to live up to his full potential, thanks to early intervention.