Understanding autism

New autism numbers reflect need for early diagnosis

By Katie Demeria

EDINBURG — Deonte Holton sat with his head down while his instructor, Mike Zimmon of the Charterhouse School-Edinburg, rubbed the 17-year-old’s head with a plastic massage tool.

When Zimmon stopped, Deonte patted the table in frustration, tried briefly to move Zimmon’s hands again, then tapped an option on the digital tablet next to him.

The tablet said, “Rub my head.”

Zimmon immediately praised Deonte and did as the tablet requested.

Lisa McClung, speech therapist, was helping another student and missed Deonte’s command of the tablet. She watched later, but Deonte was only able to tap at several options and did not go directly to the “rub my head” option again.

“We’re hoping that with practice he’ll be able to really use it,” McClung said.

Deonte, of Harrisonburg, is severely autistic and nonverbal. Zimmon said finding a way to give Deonte a voice is an important part of his work.

“It’s like unlocking a mystery,” Zimmon said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that the number of children in the United States believed to have an autism spectrum disorder has risen by 30 percent over the last two years: the current rate is one in 68 children.

Both the CDC’s news release and Zimmon warned that those numbers may not reflect an actual increase in the number of children developing autism.

“We’re starting to understand more about it, whereas 20 years ago it was probably all lumped into the same category, such as intellectually disabled,” Zimmon said. “We’re becoming more understanding and are probably able to properly diagnose it.”

The latest increase, then, can actually be viewed as a positive development — according to Zimmon, the best way to help children with autism is to diagnose them as early as possible. If more children are getting diagnosed, hopefully they are also getting the right services.

McClung said Deonte’s work with the tablet’s commands will probably be slow. Though the program supports pages and pages of commands, she said Deonte needs to start with only five, which include “I’m thirsty,” and “where’s Mr. Mike?”

“The earlier you get them started, the better,” McClung said. “It should really be as early as possible.”

Zimmon said children can usually be diagnosed by the time they are 3, when parents will really start to notice differences in developmental checkpoints as opposed to other non-autistic children.

“Starting them early and getting them the right services will only better prepare them for the world,” he said. “It ranges between communication to basic living skills like toileting. High functioning autistic kids don’t understand social cues. So simple social cue training will really help them come into their own.”

When it comes to what individuals with autism really need, Zimmon said an understanding in the community “would do wonders.”

Many people think those with autism are not empathetic or caring, he said, but that is not the case.

“They just have a different way of viewing the world,” Zimmon said. “It’s not that they don’t feel empathy, I think it’s actually that they feel too much and just don’t know how to express themselves.”

McClung said she thinks Deonte enjoys having his head rubbed so much because he recognizes the positive sensory input and can interpret it in an easy, uncomplicated way.

At other moments, she said, their brains are overloaded. An autistic child may cover their eyes, for example, when sounds are too loud because their brains do not know how to interpret both the extreme auditory and visual stimulation.

That same difference in interpreting the world, Zimmon said, can be applied to the way they communicate and interact with people.

Community involvement, Zimmon said, is very important when building social skills, and could seriously help those like Deonte.

“People need to start understanding that individuals with autism just have a little bit of a difference. They’re not lesser people, they’re not dumb or entirely different,” Zimmon said. “They’ve been turned away their entire lives, and if more of an understanding were there, it could make all the difference.”

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com