By Dhara Thakar Meghani
In the popular NBC television drama Parenthood, Max Braverman and his father Adam are enjoying a rare day together at an amusement park when they learn that the roller coaster Max is most excited to ride is shutting down due to technical malfunctions.
Completely disappointed, Max refuses to leave the line. “You said we would ride the Velocirator as many times as I wanted,” he complains, frustrated with the sudden change of plan. “You took me out of school … We changed everything about the day so we would ride this! We have to ride it!” Max dismisses Adam’s gentle attempt to explain what happened and instead storms off yelling, “It’s not fair!” repeatedly as he runs through the amusement park.¹
On the show, Max is often confronted with situations that don’t pan out as he imagined, resulting in similar “temper tantrums,” which one might say are characteristic of most children who don’t get what they want. Max has Asperger’s though – a syndrome that might be less familiar to your ears than Autism, but one that falls along the same wide spectrum of developmental disorders that are getting exceptional attention this month: April calls for Autism Awareness through events, fundraisers, and worldwide efforts as showcased by www.lightitupblue.org.
This year, the campaign arrived on the heels of a staggering statistic from the Centers for Disease Control which reported that 1 in every 88 children in the U.S. have Autism Spectrum Disorder, up from 2009, when the prevalence was 1 in 110 children. This increase might be partly traced back to changes in diagnostic criteria that now include individuals previously diagnosed under other disorders², but it has considerably increased parental vigilance and concern.
Understandably so – Autism IS a serious disorder that is marked by communicative delays, gross impairments in social skills, and preoccupations with routine behaviors and activities that limit flexibility and interaction with others³. In essence, autism manifests in ways that sorely impact the formation of relationships, which are the foundation for development.
Perhaps one of the hardest truths about this disorder is that no parent ever plans for an autistic child in the way most parents prepare to change diapers and teach their child to ride a bike. An Autism diagnosis can throw the entire family system off-balance, as parents and siblings learn to make major lifestyle adjustments.
Changes might include rewarding the child with a meaningful prize when he attempts making eye contact, keeping light, sound, or other sensory inputs at a tolerable level, or simply having patience for the child’s inherent affinity for a fixed routine. Unfortunately, there is no “cure” for autism, but in addition to a supportive home environment, an accommodating school and therapy with a behavioral specialist are both essential. The resounding message regarding prognosis for autism is: the earlier it is diagnosed, the faster treatment can begin.
Although autism is rarely diagnosed before a child is 1 year old, here are some early developmental red flags identified by the American Academy of Pediatrics – should you observe any of these in your little one, be sure to seek an assessment through a pediatrician, psychologist, and/or early intervention specialist:
➢ Lack of smile or joyful expression by 6 months
➢ No babbling, responding to own name, pointing or other gestures by 12 months
➢ No single words at 16 months
➢ No 2-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months
Dhara Thakar Meghani is available to answer any questions you have regarding diagnosis, treatment, or other concerns; simply email her at email@example.com She urges you to join in the spirit of Autism awareness month by sharing this article with friends, colleagues, and family members.
¹Katims, J. (Writer) & Trilling, L. (Director). (March 1, 2011). Qualities and Difficulties [Television series episode]. In Howard,R., Grazer, B., Katims, J., and Trilling, L. (Producers), Parenthood. Los Angeles, CA: Imagine Television and Universal Television.
²Bearman, P. & King, M. (2009). Diagnostic change and the increased prevalence of autism. International Journal of Epidemiology, 38, 1224-1234.
³American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Arlington, VA