HANCOCK - More cases of autism are being reported than ever, but early diagnosis and treatment are increasing the chances that children can function well.
About one in 88 children have been diagnosed with some form of autism, twice the rate of 10 years ago, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released last week. Autism results from a neurological disorder that impacts development of social interaction and communication skills.
Autism is most prevalent among males; among females, the rate is only one in 250. There's also a strong genetic link; people who have autism in their immediate family are more likely to be autistic themselves.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
Colleen Vallad-Hix, pediatrician at Portage Health, is seen discussing autism at her office Wednesday.
The possibility that autism is caused by chemicals used in vaccinations has been debunked by numerous subsequent studies. However, the theory's popularity had widespread negative consequences, including a rise in unimmunized children and the slowing of research on other causes, said Colleen Vallad-Hix, a pediatrician at Portage Health.
"Everyone said, 'Woohoo, we have an answer,' and stopped research," she said. "Ten years of research, we lost. It is clear, clear, clear, and they've researched it, there is no correlation between immunization and autism."
Children who are autistic will typically show signs before they are 3. Vallad-Hix said children are tested using Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) at their 18- and 24-month visits.
Some signs are accentuated hearing and a dull or over-sensitive tactile sense. They may also have less response to social cues, such as not turning when their name is called. Because of the lack of social skills, they may not interact with playthings in an anticipated way.
"They don't pretend to be driving the car; they'll get an obsession with the wheel turning on the car," Vallad-Hix said.
Once a definitive diagnosis is made, Vallad-Hix said, children may start undergoing speech and occupational therapy. Parents are taught how to help their children reduce stress, as they often have acute sensitivity to sensory stimuli. One method is compression, invented by Temple Grandin, where the person lies between two padded boards and controls the amount of pressure through an air compressor.
At least some of the rise in autism cases since the 1980s is probably due to the greater awareness of autism and related disorders, Vallad-Hix said. Yet the number of autism diagnoses may shrink for a different reason. A panel preparing the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is considering narrowing the standard definition for autism. Vallad-Hix said many of the parents in her parental advocate group are concerned about the new definition, which they think may lessen the amount of aid for their child.
While the earliest diagnoses occur around 18 months, diagnostic tools for younger children are being developed as more information about autism comes in, Vallad-Hix said.
With early detection and treatment, Vallad-Hix said, many people with autism can go on to lead independent lives as adults.
"They're not mentally retarded," she said. "They are fully (functional), often brilliant people so the sooner we intervene, the better they do."