Early detection and intervention is key to helping an autistic child. If you can catch the autism before the child is six, you can help reprogram the processor, Colvin said.
According to the Autism Society of America, there isn't a cure, in the medical sense, for those differences in the brain that result in autism. Yet years of research have led to the development of improved coping mechanisms and strategies for dealing with autism, which can lead to lessening and even the disappearing of symptoms in an autistic child. With proper interventions, many behaviors of autism can be changed for the better, and a person may even appear to be free of autistic behaviors, although the majority of these people will still show manifestations of autism at some level throughout their lives.
But it can be hard for parents to admit there's something wrong with their child. Even Karen, who was a doctor and "should have recognized the signs," did not take their son for evaluation until a family vacation triggered autistic behaviors they could not ignore. While it's comforting to take reassurance that each child develops at his own pace, if your child is consistently showing the "red flags" of autism —refusal to make eye contact, inappropriate play such as twirling a toy rather than pushing it, and extremely delayed speech, it's better to have him evaluated.
As important as detection is intervention. Colvin said that if you catch a child while her mind is still play dough rather than hardened clay, you can teach her to work around the faulty processors in her brain. This takes extreme dedication. All too often, the "experts" want to fit every autistic child into a given program of therapy, which can be counterproductive. Autistic children need 25-70 hours of different therapies a week. This can be especially difficult in schools, where special education programs may not have the up-to-date knowledge or resources to deal with an autistic child. Parents must take an active role, not only in helping with therapy at home, but in researching autism and working with schools and therapists on what works best for their child.
Colvin left her practice in family medicine so that she could more fully involve herself in Matthew's life. "It wasn't until I came home from work (permanently) that I realized how much help he needed. As a mother, I am the constant in his life. I have to take on the responsibility of keeping up on his life. It's a full-time responsibility."
Matthew has "mild" autism, yet requires about 25 hours of therapy a week. He attends the Colorado Preschool Program at Sierra Vista, where a special education teacher works with him one-on-one on how to play with toys and relate to the group. He also has speech therapy and some physical therapy. At least monthly, Colvin gets together with Matthew's teachers and therapists to discuss his progress and any changes in the program. She said they have met with some resistance, primarily from psychiatrists or educators who had already made up their mind what an autistic child needs, but overall, their district has been wonderfully open. "Even specialists don't fully understand autism," she said, adding that autistic children learn differently even from each other. Matthew, for example, learns quickly when things are put in song. Nonetheless, at least one psychologist who evaluated him came away thinking Matthew had no verbal skills whatsoever.
Parents must research therapies and push for what specifically will work for their child.
More Autism Support & Resources
Likewise, parents should seek out help for themselves, both for knowledge and for support. "People don't understand why we make such a big deal out of such little things, but for someone who had no interest in the outside world to suddenly say or do something outside himself, that's a major accomplishment. [The autism] seems so devastating, but as you walk through it, you're stronger," Colvin said.
For more information about autism, contact: