Autism: What You Should Know

Harold Monteau

April was Autism Awareness month.

Autism is not prevalent in Native American Communities, which may be due to the lack of awareness and lack of resources for diagnosis, or even that genetic factors linked to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may not be prevalent in Native American populations. The age of parents has a statistical significance in ASD, with older parents being more likely to have a child with some form of ASD.

I am not a Doctor, but I am the parent of a very wonderful and loving (and loved) child with ASD and this article is written from that perspective. This is not medical advice. It’s just what I have discovered and experienced as a parent. If you suspect that your child has shown symptoms or you suspect that it may run in your family, consult a Pediatrician or Family Doctor. They can recommend further diagnosis from professionals that specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of symptoms.

ASD is not “retardation” but in extreme cases can cause the child to be almost non-functional, but in most cases the child is “Functionally Autistic” and be of normal intelligence (and sometimes above normal intelligence) while delayed in speech, small motor capability, maturity and experience delays or lack of “social” behavior or skills. There is no cure, at least yet, and treatment is aimed at controlling the behavioral manifestations with medicine taken internally and some “topical” treatments that seem to have positive effects Native Americans may be ahead of the ball on the latter as a consequence of use of “Traditional Remedies” and “Holistic Treatment. Then again, I may be prejudiced.

No one knows the cause(s) of Autism but current research is being directed to “neurological” conditions which manifest in certain behavioral traits that tend to be common although each case can be unique and have some traits but not others.

On the whole, research indicates that the “in the womb” environment and factors introduced into that environment may be a big factor. While this should not be confused with “Fetal Alcohol Syndrome”, or symptoms due to substance abuse during pregnancy, these may play a part in exacerbating the genetic factors. Research is also being done on oxygen deprivation in the womb and in the post-natal period. There is no evidence that vaccination(s) has any effect.

 New neurological studies with regard to brain “connectivity” (mostly having to do with brain synapses and certain proteins that cause parts of the brain to interact) indicates that Autism could be a result of “over-wiring or under-wiring” in parts of the brain.

Some of the symptoms or “behaviors” associated with ASD are probably caused by what we parents call “overload” or “meltdown” incidents. These are not “behaviors” in the sense that a child is voluntarily being “bad” but rather are something that the child, or even his brain, have no control over. Depending on the stimulus (loud noises, sudden changes in the immediate environment, sudden changes in routine or sudden absence of known persons), certain chemical changes may take place immediately in the brain and take place in a manner that is far more intense than is usually experienced. The manifested behavior can run from “flight or fight” and the attempted removal of oneself as fast as possible from the source, or perceived source, of the stimulus. The reaction can be a “breakdown” or “meltdown” with uncontrollable crying or shouting that can take a while to subside. Both the child and parents can develop techniques to restore a sense of calm but still may take a while for the child to completely forget about it.

The prevalence of ASD is higher in boys than girls. An estimated 1 in 62 children may have some symptoms but with 1in every 42 boys having some symptoms.

So as a parent, what should you look for? Certain behaviors or lack of behaviors tend to manifest themselves in an ASD child between the ages of one (1) year and 18 months to two (2) years. They include but are not limited to; lack of eye contact or avoidance of prolonged eye contact, non-reaction to his name being called, repetitive or “pattern” behavior (this may also be a coping mechanism), not liking to be held or touched (but have faith, they can get over this and being wrapped in a Cradleboard or Pocket seems to be calming), overly focused interests such as with movement or moving objects and sometimes water (this can be dangerous), intense interest in facts, numbers, details, instructions (sometimes to the point of reciting them verbatim or very precise artistic renditions), a tendency to want to stay or her subject of conversation and not those initiated by others (some adults have this problem), responding in an unusual way to the emotions of others or not tending to recognize when someone is in anger, distress or trying to show them affection, repeating words or phrases (called “echolalia”), have an unusual tone or speaking in a “sing-song” manner or flat and robotic (think “Cree or Rocky Boy accent”). Some strengths or abilities can include, above average intelligence (46%), being able to learn things in detail and remember it for a long time, strong visual and auditory learners (They may have strong visual “literal” interpretations of what most people would interpret in the abstract, which can be humorous or puzzling to them.), they may excel in using numbers (math), reading (ahead of grade) music, science or art. They also may be able to recognize “patterns” against a background of chaotic figures or be able to make sense of what appears to us to be visually chaotic (think Temple Grandin or Albert Einstein).

Again, if you suspect that your child may have some of the symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) consult your pediatrician or family doctor and they can refer you to other professionals for further assessment or diagnosis.

NINDS researchers are studying aspects of brain function and development that are altered in people with ASD. For example, NINDS-funded researchers are investigating the formation and function of neuronal synapses, the sites of communication between neurons, which may not properly operate in ASD and neurodevelopmental disorders. Other studies use brain imaging in people with and without ASD to identify differences in brain connectivity and activity patterns associated with features of ASD. Researchers hope that understanding these alterations can help identify new opportunities for therapeutic interventions. Additional NINDS researchers are studying the relationship between epilepsy and autism.

Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree Attorney and Economic Development Consultant residing in New Mexico and can be reached at [email protected].

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