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Frequently Asked Questions about Autism



Do vaccines cause autism?

Signs of autism may appear around the same time children receive the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine, some parents may worry that the vaccine causes autism. Vaccine safety experts, including experts at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that the MMR vaccine is not responsible for recent increases in the number of children with autism or signs of autism.

Claims of a connection between the vaccine and autism were initially raised in a 1998 paper in the respected British medical journal, The Lancet. After it was discovered that Andrew Wakefield, the paper’s lead author, had received major funding from British trial lawyers seeking evidence, 10 of the paper’s 12 co-authors retracted their support of any association between the MMR vaccine and autism. In 2004, a report by the Institute of Medicine concluded that there is no link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

We believe that it is important for parents and pediatricians to continue to rely on immunizations to protect all children from preventable—and potentially deadly—illnesses. Many vaccine-preventable diseases can have dangerous consequences, including seizures, brain damage, blindness, and even death. The CDC continues to recommend two doses of the MMR vaccine for all children: dose one at ages 12-15 months and dose two at ages 4-6 years.

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What medications are typically used to treat autism?

While there are no drugs, vitamins, or special diets that can correct the underlying neurological problems that appear to cause autism, a number of parents and physicians have found that some drugs used for other disorders can be effective in treating aspects of or behaviors associated with autism (e.g., aggression, self-injurious behavior, and severe tantrums). Many of these medications have not been officially approved by the FDA for use in children, and further research needs to be done to ensure the efficacy and the safety of experimental drugs used in the treatment of children and adolescents.

Some of these medications include: Risperdal (an anti-psychotic recently approved by the FDA to treat symptoms of autism); Secretin; Serotonin and anti-depressants; and Divalproex Sodium (a mood stabilizer, currently FDA approved for the treatment of epilepsy or manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder).

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Why is age three the mark to see the most improvement?

It is generally accepted that a great amount of brain development happens in a child’s first three years. The language centers of the brain are working their hardest, and social skills are being integrated with language skills. From a practical perspective, it is important that social and language skills be in place prior to the child entering preschool. The child needs to be prepared for group learning, sharing, and participating in complex social environments such as school. Also, behaviorally we want the child to be able to tolerate all of the demands of preschool.

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What should parents look for in an autism service provider?

When families are interviewing autism service providers they should ask three key questions:

  • What are your credentials and training experience?
    Parents should make sure there will be a Master’s-level professional overseeing their child’s autism service program every week in their home. They also want a therapist with the background and training experience to have a major impact on the child’s development. Their child should not be one of the first children the therapist has worked with in this capacity.
  • What will the in-home sessions look like?
    Parents need to find out if the therapist knows how to effectively interact with children. How will they motivate the child? How do they define play goals? Will therapy include all family members? How will data be collected? Parents should ask to see sample data sheets, graphs, and reports.
  • How will the child’s progress be measured?
    Parents should ask what a positive outcome would be for their child. If the child makes good progress, how exactly will that be determined? Get some tangible benchmarks for treatment. If the goals appear too academic or rote, it may not be a good fit. If the goals are for the child to become a good communicator and playmate, then parents are more likely to have a provider who will focus on treating the child’s core deficits rather than just teaching a lot of skills (which often serve to mask core deficits).

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When should parents and physicians start looking for signs of autism?

Warning indicators for possible autism can be evident as young as 3-6 months of age. The earliest signs of autism or developmental delay include:

  • No eye contact by 3 months of age
  • No smiles or expressiveness by six months
  • No reciprocal sounds, babbling, or sharing of facial expressions by nine months
  • No pointing or showing interest in objects by 12 months
  • No word usage by 16 months
  • Loss of speech or social responsiveness at ANY age

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Does every pediatrician screen for autism and/or the signs of autism?

The American Academy of Pediatrics now requires pediatricians to do two screenings for autism and/or signs of autism before age two. They have developed an “autism resource toolkit” on CD-Rom to help physicians identify and manage children with autism spectrum disorders. The product includes screening and surveillance algorithms, sample screening tools, developmental checklists and growth charts, early intervention referral forms, family education handouts, and much more. More information on AAP policies and autism resources can be found at www.aap.org.

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How can doctors and families determine the best treatment for a child?

This is difficult. After recognizing the signs of autism, the family is faced with a devastating diagnosis, a brief window to get early intervention started, and the hope that they will find a treatment provider that will make a profound and lasting impact. There is enormous pressure and a lot of complicated and confusing variables to consider.

Physicians can help by providing parents with educational materials and resources, and a referral to a reputable provider of autism services. AIS offers in-home assessments as well as advice on different autism treatment options and funding resources. We can also supply physician’s offices with brochures, tip sheets, and other useful parent education materials. Simply contact us to place a request.

At AIS, we believe that at the first signs of autism, autism therapy should be focused on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) methods. There is too much risk in not doing so. We would not want to see treatment time and treatment gains possibly jeopardized by multiple interventions that may not be complimentary to each other.

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What are some of the pitfalls of home-based therapy if not implemented correctly?

Our program only starts in the home. By working with the family and incorporating their natural home routines, we are able to promote rapid and sustainable progress. Parent training is crucial, and authentic and interactive social routines are critical to success. In the beginning, we can get that best in the home environment.

The program eventually expands beyond the home, with new play and social opportunities at our Socialization Program and within the wider community. Most children with autism continue to need an ABA program in some form beyond age three.

We will often times begin with both home ABA 1:1 intervention and participation in our Socialization Program.

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At what age does a child have the greatest chance of overcoming autism?

Early intervention should begin the moment that there is any suspicion of developmental delay or signs of autism, as much can be done to bring the child back onto a typical developmental track. AIS has done this for children even prior to their first birthday. Most children are referred for early intervention soon after their second birthday. It is critical that a significant amount of early intervention effort be in place prior to the child’s third birthday as much of a child’s brain development occurs in the first three years of age.

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What is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is basically the science of teaching. The methods of ABA are very well researched and accepted as the most empirically-validated approach to treating autism. It is not that other approaches are harmful or ineffective (even though some may be), they simply lack the evidence to support their claims as successful treatments for autism.

AIS’s play-based approach for the treatment of autism is well rooted in the rigorous ABA research literature, which contains research on recovery from autism and hundreds of articles on how to teach effective social and communication skills.

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