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Mental Health Minute | Diagnosing autism: When there are no words

Jonathan Shenk was like almost every other toddler until he was2 years old. "Then he went from talking like crazy to not being able to say the word 'juice,'" remembers his mother, Kitty Shenk.

She took her son to the pediatrician, and by the time he was 2-and-a-half, Jonathan had a definite diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Jonathan is the young face of a staggering national trend. According to data just released by the Centers for Disease Control, one out of every 88 children born in the United States will be diagnosed with autism. That's up from 1 in 110 reported in 2009.

There are likely multiple reasons for the increase, but no one answer. Bart Hodgens, PhD, clinical psychologist at Manatee Glens, offers the following explanation.

"One reason is that the definition of autism has broadened. However, there's also the very real possibility for an as yet unexplained increase in the occurrence of autism."

Early diagnosis is very important. Experts stress that there's clear scientific evidence early identification and intervention leads to a better outcome.

Hodgens is working on establishing a Child Diagnostic Center at Manatee Glens to assist parents in finding the answers they seek.

Autism is considered a spectrum disorder because there is a broad range of disorders and a spectrum of severity from severely dysfunctional to just a bit quirky. The child with autism usually struggles with language development. Like Jonathan, they may start to develop normal language skills but then regress.

Dr. Hodgens notes that other early signs are poor eye contact, not combining words, not responding to their name, not seeming to know how to play with their toys and not smiling.

"The best evaluations require a team approach." says Hodgens. "Manatee Glens teams with Easter Seals Southwest Florida to provide speech/language and developmental assessments."

Those with autism also have difficulty interacting with others and being socially appropriate. Parents often notice that carrying on conversations is a stressor and a struggle.

Many children with autism are hypersensitive. This involves all the senses, and the child may be bothered by common odors, the texture of clothes, the sounds of crunchy foods and so on.

After diagnosis, the hard work begins. There's speech and occupational therapy, specialized instruction, applied behavior analysis and medical care.

It takes work, time and effort. "His schedule is very tough," Shenk said of Jonathan's routine. "I don't think most adults could handle it."

"He's a wonderful kid. He is so kind and so sweet and funny," Shenk said about Jonathan. "He has an innocent quality. He says things now that are funny and charming. He can be feisty, but he's a great kid -- really awesome."

Families need to be realistic with their expectations for their child. That is why a good evaluation is so important. Yet there's a great sense of hope.

"I personally know many families who have been able to accomplish wonderful things. Most kids with this diagnosis have tremendous potential," said Dr. Hodgens.

Mary Ruiz, is president/CEO of Manatee Glens, the specialty hospital and outpatient practice for mental health and addictions. Manatee Glens is developing a summer camp program for kids with skills challenges. For information about Manatee Glens, visit www.ManateeGlens.org.

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