SEAVIEW — In 2002, one in 150 children was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Now, one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD.
Peace of Mind Pacific County hosted a community dinner and panel about autism Tuesday, Sept. 25 at the Peninsula Church Center.
Presenters included Lutheran pastor Anna Haugen, who was diagnosed with autism as an adult; Greta Smith, Developmental Disabilities Administration case manager; Princess Klus, Basics NW outreach coordinator and parent of two adult children with autism; and Teresa Fleck, Ocean Beach School District speech-language therapist.
“Autism Spectrum Disorder is a developmental disability that can cause significant social and communication behavioral challenges,” Fleck said.
“The learning, thinking and problem solving abilities of people with ASD can range from gifted to severely challenged,” Fleck said. “Some people with ASD need a lot of help in their daily lives and others do not.”
ASD can be diagnosed at any age but is considered a developmental disorder because symptoms typically appear in a child’s first two years, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
About half of people with ASD have average or above average intelligence, Fleck said.
The cause behind ASD is unknown. Research suggests the cause may be related to environmental factors and genetics, Haugen said.
The rates of children being diagnosed with ASD have increased in recent years. When Fleck started working with autism in 2002, the diagnosis rate was one in 150. Now, the rate is one in 59. For boys, the rate is one in 37 and for girls, one in 151.
There are a variety of symptoms a child with ASD may show. According to Fleck, these include:
• Not pointing at objects to show interest
• Not looking at objects when another person points to them
• Having trouble relating to other people
• Avoiding eye contact
• Wanting to be alone
• Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings
• Having trouble talking about their feelings
• Not wanting to be held or cuddled
• Only wanting to be held or cuddled
• Appearing unaware when people talk to them but responding to other sounds
• Not knowing how to talk or relate to others
• Repeating words or phrases to people
• Repeating actions over and over again
• Having trouble expressing needs using typical words
• Not playing pretend games
• Having trouble adapting to changes in routine
• Being undereactive or overactive
• Losing skills previously mastered; such as no longer talking
“One of the things that I just want to stress is that it’s really important if you see some of these characteristics to take a child in for an evaluation,” Fleck said.
Because ASD is a spectrum disorder, people with ASD may have varying experiences and symptoms.
As an adult, Haugen doesn’t face any of the symptoms Fleck described for children. This doesn’t mean Haugen has grown out of having ASD, though.
“Our brains are wired differently than other people’s and that doesn’t just magically go away when we turn 18,” Haugen said. “If a child is autistic, they will be autistic as an adult. There’s no cure. You don’t magically become normal.”
Haugen emphasized the importance of developing coping skills as an adult.
“As an adult, I have better coping skills than a child does,” Haugen said. “That’s one of the main things with autism. You don’t grow out of it. You don’t cure it. You develop more coping skills for dealing with it.”
ASD isn’t a clear spectrum.
“You may think in your head of a line from normal to weird. That’s not what the autism spectrum is. It’s more like a color wheel,” Haugen said. “So you can have somebody who has a lot of sensory processing issues but not many executive function issues and their social skills are in the middle for an autistic person.”
Individuals who are formally diagnosed with autism often have a dual diagnosis, meaning they have been diagnosed with something else such as anxiety, epilepsy or depression, Haugen said.
Seventy percent of individuals who have been diagnosed with autism have at least one other diagnosis, while 40 percent of individuals diagnosed with autism have two additional diagnoses, Haugen said.
Haugen said people with ASD are used to being rejected by people who they meet.
“Be there for them consistently,” Haugen stressed. “Sometimes they’re going to be weird. You may not always get what they’re doing and you’re probably not going to understand them a lot of the time. But still be there for them, care about them and make sure they know you care.”
Parents of children who have ASD are also used to being avoided, Fleck said. Before interacting with a child who has ASD, Fleck suggests talking to the child’s parents to learn about their interests. When interacting with the child and parents, Fleck suggests not being afraid and not giving up.
If one form of communication doesn’t work well for a child with ASD, Fleck and Haugen recommend trying other forms. So, if talking doesn’t work well, sign language, word boards and singing may work better.
“Try everything. You can’t hurt,” Fleck said.
Haugen stressed the importance of representation. When discussing and learning about autism, it’s important to take note of what people who have autism are saying, not just experts, Haugen said.
“That’s something to pay attention to as you’re going out into the larger world; is this something that is said by someone who is actually autistic or not? If it’s by someone that isn’t autistic that doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid but you do have to go look and see,” Haugen said.
Klus works for Basics NW in Raymond, which provides autism services. She is the parent of two adult children who are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Klus said it’s been about 15 years since there were autism support groups in the area. A special services navigator was recently hired for Pacific County whose job will include facilitating support groups and discussions, and meeting with families, Klus said.
In addition, a School Medical Autism Review Team, also known as SMART, is getting started in Pacific County. The team brings together experts and adults who know a child to discuss whether they think the child meets the criteria to be diagnosed with autism.
In Lewis County, there is the Lewis County Autism Coalition, which provides autism-related services. The coalition will host its annual Southwest Washington Autism Conference on Friday, Oct. 26.
Online, people with ASD can connect through the hashtag #actuallyautistic. By going on social media sites such as Facebook and searching “#actuallyautistic” users can find and talk to individuals who have ASD.