When it comes to the effective treatment of autism, time is of the essence. Current research indicates that intervention should begin no later than age five in order to achieve the most impactful changes and give kids who are on the autism spectrum the best possible opportunity for future success. Recognizing that the lack of timely access to autism programming has been a major obstacle to families in our community, Mercy Health – Children’s Hospital recently expanded their Autism Services program in Maumee to more than double its previous size.
This expansion is a welcome development because the need for timely autism services is on the rise. Alexis Eggenberger, Manager of Autism Services for Mercy Health, notes that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism affects one out of every 59 children—a significant increase from the statistic of one in 68 that the CDC cited for many years. “Not only are we seeing an increase in prevalence, but we’re also seeing improvements in screening and diagnostic measures, which is helping to identify kids who need intervention more effectively,” she adds.
Owing to the substantial need for autism programming in our area, the Mercy Health – Children’s Hospital Autism Services program has had to place families on a long waiting list to get services. However, with the facility’s expansion, that’s no longer the case. Eggenberger says, “We previously had the capacity to serve up to 16 children on a full-day basis or 32 on a half-day basis, and we were running a one- to two-year waiting list. That could be devastating for parents with a child who was just diagnosed because it put them at risk of missing that optimal window of opportunity for intervention by age five. However, with the recent expansion, we can serve up to 72 children, which completely eliminates that waiting list.”
According to Eggenberger, autism is a neurodevelopmental disability that impacts kids’ socialization, communication, and overall behavior. Signs of autism typically begin to appear before age two.
Examples from the very wide spectrum of potential indicators include lack of or differences in eye contact; differences in social reciprocity, for example having difficulty sharing, taking turns, or engaging in back-and-forth conversation; unusual speech patterns such as speaking in a robotic or sing-song tone; repetitive behavior such as rocking or hand-flapping; rigid behavior such as needing things to happen in a particular order; over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli; very specific food preferences and/or aversions to certain food textures; a very narrow range of interests or excessive focus on particular topics; fixation on particular objects such as those that spin or turn; and many others.
However, it’s important to note that exhibiting one or more of these signs is not necessarily a “red flag” that a child has autism. Nor does failing to exhibit one of these signs mean he or she does not have autism.
“Most parents with children on the spectrum are at the very least somewhat overwhelmed,” says Cap Averill, the father of a Mercy Health client. “They are also certainly under pressure, all the way around. Having a friend like Mercy Health – Children’s Hospital Autism Services to help wade through the complicated nature of payment strategies as well as stay on top of a world-class applied behavioral analysis program is truly a lifesaver. I cannot speak highly enough about the Mercy Health team.”
Mercy Health – Children’s Hospital Autism Services has been serving the community since 2004, providing comprehensive early intervention that includes applied behavioral analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and occupational therapy for children with autism, as well as mental health counseling for the children’s parents and siblings.
Eggenberger explains, “Our program is based on the ABA philosophy, which is an evidence-based approach that takes larger concepts and skills and breaks them down into teachable components. All our services are offered in a one-to-one format, and each child’s program is individualized to his or her needs. The program addresses social skills, play skills, feeding, toileting, behavior management, communication, and group-attending skills with the goal of moving kids out of our environment to a typical school setting with one teacher to multiple students, whether that means a public, private, charter, or other school. We work primarily with toddlers to preschoolers and try to transition them to school by age five or six.”
Though children with autism may have deficits to overcome in order to achieve success in school and later in life, Eggenberger is always impressed by the unique and varied strengths they exhibit. One of the more common strengths she sees in kids at the clinic is persistence, which is vital when it comes to succeeding in school, finding employment, and exploring interests and hobbies. “Also, our kids tend to analyze things in ways that we would never think of, for example taking apart a toy and putting it back together in a different way or conceptualizing completely different toys and putting them together using something like Legos. The teach us much more than we teach them,” she says.
If there’s one message Eggenberger hopes parents will remember, it’s that while autism may not yet be curable, it is treatable. “It’s a big misconception that there’s nothing you can do if your child gets a diagnosis or that all your hopes and dreams for your child are gone. If you have concerns about your child, discuss them with your doctor, and if he or she is diagnosed with autism, don’t wait to seek treatment. The earlier we can intervene, the better the outcome for your child,” she emphasizes.