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Monday, April 5, 2021

Paying Attention

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April is Autism Awareness Month

Welcome to National Autism Awareness Month. There is much to educate ourselves about in this fast-changing field. The field of autism research continues to grow rapidly, and 2020 saw many exciting and groundbreaking research publications.

Public awareness regarding this complex neurobiological disorder continues to increase. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the new updates on estimated prevalence (one in 54 people) show us we will all be touched by this condition in some way -- as parents, friends, family members or co-workers. Below are some of the most exciting changes and research findings in the field of autism.

Did you know that there appears to be an “autism advantage at work”? High-functioning individuals with autism can make excellent employees.

While transitioning to the workforce can be challenging for many individuals with autism, recent research shows that individuals with autism spectrum disorders often make outstanding employees due to their unique abilities.

For example, there is a specific branch of the Israeli Army that recruits teens with autism. This unit, known as 9900, is the Israel Defense Force’s “Visual Intelligence Division.” Due to their unique visual scanning ability and tendency to think in pictures, individuals with autism can perform tasks that other soldiers would not be able to do.

For example, one individual with high functioning ASD scans satellite images and aerial maps and looks for movement or change. Within the United States, companies such as JP Morgan /Chase and Ernst & Young and other corporations have recognized the advantage of adding neurodiversity to their workforce.

Individuals on the autism spectrum have unique strengths associated with attention to detail, visual acuity, tolerance for repetitive tasks and strengths in terms of technology. As employers begin to see their unique abilities rather than their disability, improvement in the employment opportunities for individuals with ASD will continue to grow.

Wandering off, also known as “elopement,” is a serious problem for the majority of families with a child who has autism.

According to a recent survey of parents, nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) between the ages of 4 and 10 years old have tried to elope. This behavior is concerning because many individuals with ASDs may not be able to communicate their names, addresses or phone numbers if they become lost. One-third of the parents surveyed have had to call the police.

LSU Health Shreveport Children’s Center offers community outreach talks to local law enforcement agencies to help educate first responders on this unique disability and how best to respond in elopement situations. New GPS technology is available, often for free or at minimal cost to the family, allowing law enforcement to find the child in record time.

Parents can learn how to safety-proof their home, access GPS technology and other ways to decrease the risk of elopement through websites such as Autism Society & Sound Initiative: www. autism-society.org/living-with-autism/ how-we-can-help/safe-and-sound.

Did you know that early intervention could actually alter brain activity?

Clinicians in the field of ASD have long supported and emphasized the importance of early intervention. However, it was unclear if behavioral intervention merely reduced autistic symptomatology or if it actually “treated” the disorder. Could the early programming a child receives actually alter the brain biology that underlies the autistic spectrum disorder?

Of all the recent research findings, for those of us who work “in the trenches” providing front-line therapy, this is the most exciting. An article published in the November issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry demonstrated that early behavioral intervention for autism is associated with changes in brain function as well as positive changes in behavior.

LSUH-Shreveport, School of Allied Health has recently added an early intervention treatment arm to our longstanding diagnostic arm of the Children’s Center to serve children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a therapy based on the science of learning and behavior. ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or negatively impact learning.

ABA therapy is effective in increasing language and communication skills, improving attention, focus, social skills, memory and academics, and decreasing problem behaviors. The methods of behavior analysis have been used and studied for decades. Therapists have used ABA to help children with autism and related developmental disorders since the 1960s.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends two autism screenings for all children before 24 months at varying points in their development. Given the prevalence mentioned above rates, it is imperative that we have effective therapies to recommend to such families once their child has been identified.

The LSU Health Shreveport Children’s Center, located on the first floor of the Allied Health Building, is the only multidisciplinary treatment facility in the region providing comprehensive autistic spectrum evaluations to children as young as 24 months. If you have concerns about your child, please call us at (318) 813-2960.

Michelle Yetman, PhD, is an assistant professor, clinical psychologist at LSU Health Shreveport.



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