A recently released survey revealed a startling statistic. According to the 2014 National Health Interview Survey, as many as one in 45 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It’s not all bad news, though. Extensive research shows that children who receive early identification and intervention services for potential ASD diagnoses experienced tremendous improvements in their communication, reciprocal play, and sensory issues. Jacob is a prime example of how a family’s love and intense therapies set him up for success in school and life.
Jacob was born at 35 weeks, just five weeks before his expected due date. Because of his early entrance, doctors warned his parents that he may meet some developmental milestones a little bit later than his peers. With that in mind, his parents and pediatrician did not worry too much when he started crawling at 12 months and walking at 17 months. However, when he wasn’t speaking at almost two, they were concerned.
The pediatrician suggested they contact Easter Seals North Georgia’s early intervention program, Babies Can’t Wait, for evaluation. At the time, Jacob qualified for speech therapy. After six months, he improved so much that he no longer needed therapies. Soon after, though, his acquisition of new language stalled and he began to repeat the same phrase over and over again for almost 45 minutes, something known as elliptical speech. Jacob’s mom called Babies Can’t Wait for another evaluation and at two and a half years old, Jacob began speech and occupational therapies.
It was also during this time that Jacob’s parents realized that his behavior was an indication of some more profound than potential developmental delays from being premature. With the help of the Babies Can’t Wait service coordinator, Jacob went to see a specialist at Emory University. The pediatrician officially diagnosed Jacob with autism spectrum disorder.
The first five years of a child’s life are the most critical in his development. The neural circuits in the brain are the most flexible during the first three years of life. Statistics show that between 25% and 50% of children with ASD, who receive intensive early intervention, will move into general education by kindergarten.
Jacob received speech, occupational, and the PLAY Project at home until he was three years old. Therapists came to Jacob’s house every week and separately worked with Jacob and his mom to address skills he was struggling with. Occupational therapist, Sam, would have Jacob’s mom assist with treatments. This coaching and modeling helped Jacob’s mom continue these exercises every day.
The PLAY Project focused on helping Jacob communicate and participate in reciprocal play. Jacob guided the therapy session. If he wanted to play blocks, his therapist, Jan Marie, encouraged mom to sit and play blocks. “The PLAY Project taught me something new. I never thought to go down to his level. It really helped our relationship,” she said. Since treatments were at Jacob’s house, he felt comfortable. When Jacob aged out of the early intervention services at three years old, he was ready to continue therapies at a clinic.
Again, Jacob’s accomplishments illustrate the benefits of early intervention services. Jacob is now eight years old and in the second grade. He attends public school where he attends “mainstream” classes for half the day. The family’s goal is to have him attend classes with neuro-typical children by the fourth grade. It looks like Jacob is well on his way to achieving this goal. In fact, he has been on the honor roll at his school since kindergarten.
Jacob’s mom believes that the early intervention services he received beginning at two years old set him up for success. She has three pieces of advice for other parents whose children show signs of potential ASD.
- It’s a process – Jacob’s mom believes it important to grieve and then ACCEPT the diagnosis as soon as you can. She says, “The sooner you can set your emotions aside and focus on getting the best care for your child, the better.”
- Don’t compare – It seems like it’s human nature, you compare yourself to other parents, your child to other children. Jacob’s mom cautions against doing that for typically developing children and children with special needs. She believes that once you see the uniqueness of your child, you’ll be able to focus on his abilities. At that point, she believes your child’s development can only grow and improve.
- Celebrate even the smallest milestones – Once you’ve accepted that this is a process and that your child and situation is unique, Jacob’s mom says you must celebrate everything. If it’s potty training, drinking from a cup, or tying shoelaces, make a big deal about it. “If your child loves balloons, give him a balloon for drinking out of a cup – or stickers. Whatever it takes to show him he has achieved something big. It makes a huge difference not only for him but for you, too,” she said.