When Cathy Estes reviews new information about autism, it is obvious to her that “something is very wrong.”
For example, last year’s research indicated one in 88 children develops autism; now the figure is one in 68, said Estes, children’s services coordinator at Sunflower’s Early Education Center (EEC) and Incredible Years Preschool.
Since April is National Autism Awareness Month, Estes wanted to use the opportunity to remind families that Sunflower’s staff includes specialists in the field.
Sunflower is a non-profit agency serving infants, toddlers and adults with developmental disabilities and delays.
“We have a highly educated, professional staff that can help parents with a child who has been diagnosed with autism,” Estes said. “We can bring our expertise to a family home as often as the parents wish. Our compassionate staff is comprised of early intervention specialists.”
Autism is a complex developmental disability that typically starts appearing during the first three years of life; however, it often is not diagnosed until after age 3. Autism affects a person’s ability to communicate and interact with others.
It is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum disorder” that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees. There is no known cause but research points to a combination of genetic components and environmental factors. It is a biological disorder.
“We refer to a developmental pediatrician when necessary, at the parent’s request,” Estes said. “It might be important to seek a diagnosis so a child can receive more help when entering the educational system at age 3.”
Sunflower’s early intervention staff members are equipped to provide needed services with or without a diagnosis.
Estes strongly recommends that parents with questions about autism contact Sunflower’s EEC for guidance.
Myths about autism include: it is a mental illness; a child with autism cannot learn; and poor parenting causes it.
At certain ages, autism signs include:
6 to 9 months – gaze aversion, poor eye contact, decreased smiling, absent facial expression, delayed babbling, infrequent vocalizations, and abnormal pattern of focus and attention;
9 to 12 months – decreased orienting to name, hearing environmental sounds better than human voices, abnormalities in arousal to stimuli and infrequent babbling;
12 to 15 months – lack of or rare pointing, lack of or rare showing, delayed speech, repetitive play and doesn’t wave bye-bye; and
15 to 18 months – limited play, lack of imitation, reduced variety of playful acts and developmental regression.
“This is such a complex disorder,” Estes summarized. “We evaluate in every developmental category and place added emphasis on screening tools we have in the social/emotional area, as well as language communication where most of the precursors for autism will fall.
“We just want parents to watch for repeated physical behaviors and a lack of interaction,” she added. “When children don’t explore their world, it might be time for professional guidance. If the intervention is early enough we can help instill new behaviors. The young brain is so pliable that we can often alleviate problems.”
Five Sunflower staff members have earned state credentials in serving children with social and emotional issues.
The EEC is one of 37 tiny-k networks in Kansas. It covers Barton, Pawnee, Rice, Rush and Stafford counties, and its services are free. Call 620-792-4087 for more information.