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Inside the Autism Spectrum

Exploring functionalities

July 01, 2011
Learning to interact socially is an important journey all children make to integrate into society. With autism, some children have more difficulty learning to socially function than others. The degrees of functionality differ for each child ranging from mild, to mid-range, to severe, creating a functionality spectrum that is presently referred to as the Autism Spectrum. The autism spectrum gauges where a child falls on the learning curve to determine his or her functionality.

Dr. Craig Erickson, chief of the Riley Hospital for Children Christian Sarkine Autism Treatment Center at Indiana University Health wrote, "Autism spectrum represents how persons with autism spectrum disorders vary in their presentations with some having more severe impairments than others. Persons with an autism spectrum disorder can use language or not use language, they can have intellectual disability or not have such disability etc. The spectrum concept represents this range of functioning levels. All persons with autism spectrum disorder are unified by some degree of significant social skills impairment and a communication delay and/or interfering repetitive behavior."

While children with autism experience fairly normal physical development, their mental development sets them apart from other kids. Dr. Luis Escobar MD, MS, medical director of medical genetics at Peyton Manning St. Vincent Hospital & Health, relayed that autism is not just a few noticeable awkward social growth periods but rather brain deficits that result in many unusual interrelated behaviors revealing learning and social disorders and the awareness of one's surroundings.

According to Escobar, what accounts for this behavior is a genetic, biochemical and or metabolic deficiency. While genetic testing reveals that something has been deleted from the gene, biochemical testing shows enzyme deficiencies, and metabolic testing proves a defect in the body's ability to process food. All of these scenarios affect the brain. External causes, he mentioned, are Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, where unborn babies sustain brain damage from their drinking mothers or from Shaken Baby Syndrome. Controversial studies point to mercury sources inhibiting natural growth hormones.

Understanding Mild, Mid-range and Severe Degrees of the Autism Spectrum

On one end of the spectrum, children with mild forms of autism associated with Asperger's syndrome can be harder to identify while children on the other end of the spectrum display noticeable behavioral difficulties associated with Rett syndrome and Fragile-X. Escobar described mild, mid-range and severe signs of autism as a combination of many impaired behaviorisms. In mild cases he noted that children who may be obsessive with attention deficits and sleep disorders as well as an inability to relate to peers, yet they possess fair social skills. His description of "a classic case" of mid-range to severe autism includes non-verbal, obsessive, compulsive and repetitive behaviors. Those children demonstrate poor eye contact, can have sleep disorders and/or panic attacks coupled with an inability to relate to others or deal with the world around them. A combination of these behaviors may indicate autism.

Tracking Autism in Left and Right Brain Hemispheres and Function

Just as people are left or right handed, so are we right or left brain dominant, meaning that one-half of the brain gives stronger characteristics and personality traits than the other.

Dr. Brad Ralston, executive director at Brain Balance Achievement Centers in Indianapolis, explained that the right hemisphere develops faster from newborn to age 2 because it controls instinct and survival modes, responsible for attention, nonverbal communication, negative emotions, withdrawal, comprehension and social and emotional functions. At age 3, left brain function kicks into gear, with reading, writing, math, positive communications and approach behavior.

Ralston described autism as a condition of Functional Disconnection between hemispheres resulting in many behavioral, academic, and social difficulties related to decreased neural firing which MRI, SPECT, PET and EEG equipment can detect. He shared that children with autism are easily distracted by their own thoughts. They tend to have an active imagination, he said, of fantasy rather than reality.

At Brain Balance, a physical measurement of activity between right and left hemispheres is drawn. Children are given a series of assessments to determine

hemisphere dominance. Brain Balance staff can then determine what areas need exercise and strengthening.

Brain Balance's efforts are best described by Dr. Robert Melillo, Brain Balance founder, in his book called "Disconnected Kids". There, he also describes the Attention Behavioral Continuum (ABC) where one disorder continues into the next.

Growing Beyond The Spectrum

All children learn to listen and respond to the world in steps and stages no matter their circumstances. The learning process with autism requires a different approach.

According to Suzanne Wilson, director at Brain Balance Indianapolis, she offered, "Some children with severe autism have difficulty noticing others in the room speaking with them or guiding them," which accounts for part of the learning deficit. She encourages parents to avoid denial and reach out to work with professionals to find solutions. Ralston also noted that children's lives change for the better once they are diagnosed and treated early on.

Dr. Dipti Vyas, a pediatrician with County Line Medical Pavilion in Greenwood, agreed with Wilson, and said, "It's harder to see signs of autism in younger children." When the sign's are present, seek advice and help. Vyas pointed out that as children with autism become older and more socially aware, they can linger 3 to 4 years behind their peers in development.

Even they themselves can see the difference, she said, and can begin to feel better about themselves as therapy teaches them new ways to adjust to the world they live in.

Many talented people have struggled with degrees of autism and gone on to lead very successful lives. Among them are entrepreneur Bill Gates, author Jerry Newport, artist and sculptor Alonzo Clemons and musician Leslie Lemke

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Jennifer Pace is a freelance writer, print/media art director and mother of 3 whose life's works is dedicated to making a better world for her own children and all children worldwide.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Special Needs

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