In Search of the Autism Answer

Indeed, the Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) teachers went straight to helping Matthew with his speech problems, but autism experts warn that speech therapy isn't the same as an autism diagnosis and autism treatment.

"Early intervention is not a diagnostic system; they will say this themselves," says Geller. "They want to just treat what's the delay and see if the child will respond."

Although Matthew received some analysis, Ahrens says he never fit into the autism spectrum until he got into kindergarten. His younger sister, Elizabeth or "Lizzie" also wasn't diagnosed until kindergarten.

"In the back of my mind, I knew there was more to this [than a speech disorder]," says Ahrens. "I thought, 'Well, fine, maybe once his speech picks up, maybe his everything else will pick up.'"

Unfortunately, autism experts disagree.

"If I just put them in speech therapy and get them to say 'pah,' it's not going to help them," says Dr. Max Wiznitzer, from the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. "It's not pronunciation; their problem is with the use of language."

A person with autism might have three words, or have the vocabulary of a college professor, but still not understand how to converse with someone instead of "talking at" someone, says Wiznitzer.

Autism experts like Geller and Wiznitzer aim to treat communication first and foremost in autistic children, because communication is key to later development.

Geller says the earlier the treatment, the higher the child may eventually fall on the autism spectrum -- and the closer they will come to enjoying a normal life.

This push on early intervention has created a frantic rush from all sides: parents, schools, and physicians.

The Weight of a Label

"We have to juggle and triage our wait list," says Dr. Patricia Davis, developmental pediatrician at the LADDERS program at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children in Boston.

The LADDERS program diagnoses 700 to 800 children a year, and for every three kids diagnosed, one was found not to have autism.

"Younger kids get in within a month or two," says Davis.

However for those who are seeking a second opinion, or who already have access to treatment, they may wait up to six months.

This situation stands as evidence that specialists in autism have not met the increasing demand. One problem is that there are simply more diagnoses nowadays. While for decades the U.S. Centers for Disease Control pinned the incidence of autism at four children in 10,000, now the CDC reports a rate of 1 in 150. Whether that increase came from an expansion in the criteria used to diagnose autism or if it instead represents a true increase has yet to be answered.

But whatever the source of the increase, autism experts also face pressure from the school systems.

"I've had parents come to us and say the schools say, 'We can't do anything for you unless you have the label,'" says Wiznitzer. "Either the schools are misinformed about the law, or they realize that it's a money maker."

In Ohio, Wiznitzer says a child with autism receives four times the amount of funding in school than a child without disabilities, and the autism diagnosis trumps any other developmental disorder.

"As a consequence of that, we have to be really, really careful," he says. "There's too many people out here applying the label with incomplete data or incomplete knowledge."

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