Understand and Treat Autism

Autistic children (or adults), have been romanticized and poeticized since Bruno Bettelheim's book "The Empty Fortress", and Dustin Hoffman's portrayal in "Rainman". But in fact, autism is a form of born learning disability that ranges from mild to severe in degrees of affliction. The disability can be conceptualized as a difficulty of the autistic child to process multiple stimuli. The most obvious manifested symptoms are deficient language, low academic achievement, lack of affect and social interaction, a preponderance of asocial and/or self-stimulatory activities. Behavior problems such as temper tantrums, rigidity of routines, self-abuse, are often a by-product of this disability.

Many therapies have been invented, ranging from Vitamins, enzymes, no-food-color-additives, biofeedback, special exercises, to drugs. But so far, the treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective under careful research is the behavioral approach using functional analysis and discrete trials, coupled with drugs in extreme cases.

Prognosis varies, depending on the severity of the affliction, the onset of treatment (the earlier the better), the expertise of the professional in his/her analysis of needs and creation of functional treatment programs, an appropriate and effective IEP, and the involvement and consistency of the treatment personnel and family members.

The most effective treatment is still behavioral therapy based on functional analysis and the use of discrete trials, as opposed to drugs. Many studies now prove that autistic children undergoing consistent and well designed behavioral intervention at a young age can often make tremendous strides. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics calls for early intervention and recommends a minimum of 25 hours a week, 12 months a year, of individual behavioral therapy.

However, in addition to intensive one-to-one therapy (the quantity), the quality of treatment, usually NOT prescribed in his IEP, is just as essential. Actual progress can still be elusive if the following ingredients are lacking:

1. a thorough and logical analysis of the autistic child's needs and functioning level (Ah, don't we know the individual differences!);

2. skillful application of the principle of applied behavior analysis in de-signing the treatment,

3. staff training to ensure nuances in treatment are carried out,

4. careful monitoring of progress (and non-progress), and

5. timely modification of treatment procedures.