While most parents of autistic children cannot imagine not caring for their child at home, the challenges of living with a child with severe autism test the strength and will of even the most devoted parents. Home health personal care assistants offer support for autistic children, their parents, and siblings.
For most parents, the early signs of autism in their child are so subtle they often miss them. An infant might seem to never look at his or parents, but prefer to stare for hours at an inanimate object across the room. Later, as the child enters the toddler years, he or she might be delayed in achieving significant developmental milestones, especially those related to speech. Additionally, if there is any slight change in the child’s routine, it seems to trigger a severe temper tantrum. When the parents bring these concerns to their child’s pediatrician, the doctor will likely begin the process of evaluating the child to determine if these symptoms are signs of autism.
What is Autism?
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are disruptions in the neurological development of a child, which result in significant delays in the develop of communication skills, impairments in social developments, as well as challenges in forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships. As they mature, children with autism typically have an inability to interpret non-verbal social cues and cannot experience empathy. In addition to these barriers between the child and the important people in his or her life, the autistic child develops ritualized repetitive movements, such as rocking, along with other behaviors, such as head banging, which can cause serious injury. These symptoms must be evident before the age of three in order for a doctor to diagnose a child with autism.
Autism is the most severe form of ASD. Other ASDs include Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder. Children diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder often score very highly on intelligence tests, but have significant difficulty relating to others. Similar to autistic individuals, people with Asperger’s Disorder exhibit little to no empathy skills, actively avoid eye contact with others, and their inability to recognize social cues make social interactions awkward at best. Pediatric medical professionals diagnose children show some autistic symptoms, but who do not meet all the diagnostic criteria, with Pervasive Developmental Disorder.
How Common is Autism?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that autism affects children regardless of their socio-economic status, ethnicity, or race. Both the NIH and CDC report that one out of 88 children who are 8 years old is diagnosed with autism. Gender is a risk factor for ASD as boys are five times as girls to be diagnosed with autism. The number of children diagnosed with autism has significantly increased in the past decade. The CDC reports it is not clear whether this rise in occurrence is due to doctors becoming more aware of the symptoms of autism, better diagnostic tools, or if it is true that more children develop autistic now than they had in the past.
What Causes Autism?
Despite claims in the media that started in the 1990s linking autism to childhood vaccinations, the Autism Science Foundation conducted a comprehensive review of scientific studies that investigated any possible link between vaccinations and autism. According to ASF, the results of numerous peer reviewed scientific research studies provide no evidence that links autism with any of the vaccines children receive in infancy and early childhood. While the medical and scientific communities have not identified a definitive cause of autism, a substantial amount evidence that a child’s genetic makeup might predispose a child to developing autism.
The NIH Fact Sheet on Autism Spectrum Disorders discuss that research exploring the role of hereditary influences on the risk of autism found that if one identical twin has autism, there is a 90 percent chance the other twin will develop autism. Additionally, studies find that parents who have one autistic child, there is a five percent chance they will have another child with autism. This risk is significantly higher than that of parents who do not have an autistic child. Other studies reported by the CDC link a mother’s use of valproic acid, an anticonvulsant, and thalidomide, a medication used to slow the growth of tumors, with an increased risk of autism.
How is Autism Treated?
While no cure exists for autism, experts agree that the earlier a child starts autism treatment, the better the child will be able to cope and manage with his or her symptoms, which allows them to function at a higher level than if they waited for treatment. Since children exhibit autism in different ways, there is no one “right” way to treat this disorder.
The following are the most common means to treat autistic symptoms:
- Applied Behavioral Analysis: Based on principles of behavioral modification, this form of highly structured therapy is used to teach children social skills, control their behavior and emotions, and develop social skills. While children work one on one with a therapist, parents also need to assist their children practice these skills.
- Speech Therapy: Speech therapists work with autistics children to address delays in language development to help them use words, instead of actions, to express their thoughts and feelings.
- Physical and Occupational Therapy: Physical and occupational therapists assist autistic children by working with them, to address delays in motor activity. Occupational therapists also help parents find ways to reduce children’s risk of hurting themselves when they rock or head bang.
- Medication: According to the Autism Science Foundation, the only two medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat aggression, self-injurious behavior, and irritability associated with autism. Other medications, such as anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and anti-consultants are prescribed to treat emotional disturbances that co-occur with autism, as well as to reduce the risk of seizure that sometimes occur in autistic children.
Autism Affects the Entire Family
Caring for an autistic child requires parents to expend a substantial amount of physical and emotional energy as well as time and attention. Since much of their parent’s time is spent caring for their autistic sibling, the other children in the family often feel isolated from their parents. Needless to say, the stress of autism ripples through families. The Autism Society, the CDC, and Autism Speaks offer resources and advice for parents and siblings of autistic children. All agree that professional respite care, such as that offered by home health personal care assistants, provide parents a chance to rest and take care of their own needs. Additionally, parents can spend some one-on-one time with their other children, while knowing their autistic child is in the care of a paraprofessional who has specialized training in the care of children diagnosed with autism.