Despite greater awareness and a better understanding of the disorder, autism
rates continue to climb at an alarming rate, with more parents than ever before receiving the devastating news of an autism diagnosis.
However, while the maze of a loved one’s diagnosis can be quite overwhelming, there is some potentially great news. As the first wave of children from the initial autism epidemic transition to adulthood, we are seeing many of them leading very functional and happy lives. Autism is a lifelong condition, insofar as affecting a person’s need for support, special accommodations or assisted living (to lesser or greater extents). However, things such as college, a career, marriage and family are proven to be very much attainable.
Autism will be typically first diagnosed according to code 299.00 of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV), which falls under the category of "Autistic Disorder." The diagnosis will then go on to list specific areas of delays or disturbances and there is typically no stated degree such as "mild" or "severe" in the initial diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder.
In most cases, the level of severity depends on what age a diagnosis occurs, how much accommodating therapy will be received and the amount of growth an individual will show with given therapies.
Low functioning autism is determined by an IQ (Intelligence Quotient) of 80 or below. This number is very low and is typified as those needing complete assistance in almost every area. With that being said, many cases that appear to be stereotypical, classic or severe, turn around in a relatively short period of time.
In order for this to take place, a tremendous amount of work must be carried out in the home or natural environment, which includes intensive applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. My four-and-a-half-year-old son was a stereotypical, wall-staring, head-banging, speechless child less than 2 years ago. Today, he is a happy, functioning child with only a severe speech impairment, inability to transition well and some social delays.
Conversely, what often appears to be a "mild" case of autism can quickly regress into something much worse without the proper therapy and ongoing treatment, both in a therapeutic environment and at home.
There are no "middle functioning" children and in actuality, there is a very small percentage of "low functioning" children, with the greatest proportion having the ability to be high functioning.
In some cases, autism can be misdiagnosed as Landau-Kleffner Disease, Rett’s Syndrome, Heller’s Disease, Hyperlexia or Tourette’s Syndrome. Regardless, all neurologically-based delays and deficiencies are best treated as early as possible with behavior modification and accommodating therapies holding the greatest weight.
Not long ago, roughly 50% of all children with autism spectrum disorders were thought to be low functioning. As was pointed out to me today, Temple Grandin was thought to be mentally retarded and was earmarked for institutionalization. Now, Dr. Grandin is an acclaimed writer and speaker on the subject of ASD and animal behaviors. She also has attained her PhD and teaches at Colorado State University. It’s a good thing her mom ignored the doctor’s recommendations.
With the early screening and diagnosing capabilities now currently available, the percentage of those with "low functioning" autism should be less than 15% if the correct behavioral therapies are administered at the appropriate time.
This should provide comfort to the wave of parents who have recently received their child’s autism diagnosis, as well as those who are yet to come.
In the end, the child diagnosed with autism today is likely to be joining the ranks of some of the most brilliant, creative and talented minds our society has ever produced.