Imagine trying to get around in a foreign country without a good map, adequate communication skills, or the ability to perceive others' feelings. Now imagine that such an existence is how many people with autism and related developmental disorders often experience the world.
Is Key to Easing Autism's Effects
Children with autism typically lack basic social impulses, resulting in problems communicating or interacting with people. They're stumped when it comes to reading body language or even making friends. In some cases, they may spend their lives speechless. Autism and autistic spectrum disorders have many faces, however. The problems vary with respect to when symptoms begin to appear, the severity of symptoms, and the presence of other disabilities, such as mental retardation or severe language impairment.
What causes autism is unknown. What is known is that the reported incidence is rising steadily. Nationally, autistic spectrum disorders may affect as many as one in 500 people, making the conditions more common than childhood cancer or Down syndrome. The increased incidence could reflect a real upsurge, improved diagnosis, better reporting and record keeping, or a combination of these factors. Still, education is the single most common and effective treatment for the disorders.
Because prompt educational intervention is the key to helping affected children develop into competent and productive adults, authorities should promote routine early screenings of children for the disorders, much like the screening done for vision and hearing problems, says a new report from the National Research Council.
Experienced professionals can reliably diagnose autism as early as age 2. And researchers have long recognized the benefits of intensive schooling for young children with such conditions within their first decade of life. But what now exists across the country is a mixed bag of intervention measures, said the committee that wrote the report. This hodgepodge has fueled an increasing number of lawsuits brought against school systems by parents dissatisfied with the level or types of services available for their kids.
"Given the often considerable effort required to help children with autistic disorders, authorities and advocates at all levels should join forces to ensure that treatments meet certain standards and lead to real progress," said Catherine Lord, committee chair and professor of psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Scientists also should tackle more rigorous studies to identify which methods are most beneficial under a range of circumstances."
At a minimum, instruction in academic and social skills -- which is required under federal special-education laws -- should be provided for 25 hours every week year-round, the committee said. And the individual needs of children and their families should factor into decisions about how that time is spent. Parental involvement also should be encouraged and supported.
Because effective instruction is critical, more should be done to educate teachers and classroom aides in the field, the committee added. Specifically, they need frequent opportunities to observe experts working with children who are autistic, fine-tune their own skills, and study numerous instructional methods.
Relevant state and federal agencies should set aside extra funds over the next five years to train those who work with or are accountable to children with autistic spectrum disorders and their families, the report says. Educators often face immense and unique challenges in socializing and instructing such children. The disorders typically persist for a lifetime. Successful schooling can make them less disabling. -- Vanee Vines
Educating Children with Autism. Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (2001, 324 pp.; ISBN 0-309-07269-7; available from National Academy Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $39.95 plus $4.50 shipping for single copies).
The committee was chaired by Catherine Lord, professor of psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education.