Teachers, families cope with autism | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Teachers, families cope with autism

Adam Jensen

Trevor Clark / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Autistic student Michael Rodriguez lays his head down to rest while working on a puzzle with aid Donna Feliciano in Pam Taylor's classroom at South Tahoe High School on Tuesday.

With cases of the disorder on the rise nationwide, autism is a term that carries a complicated range of symptoms that remain unexplained, baffling neurologists for years.

Autism often refers to an entire spectrum of neurological disorders with traits, ranging from mild to severe, affecting more than 1 million U.S. residents.

“I have three students with autism in my class and they’re all completely different,” said Pam Taylor, special education teacher for South Lake Tahoe High School, in her classroom on Tuesday.

The disorders can be as individual as the people affected, but social interaction bears the brunt of an autism diagnosis in most cases.

Common traits include a difficulty in maintaining eye contact, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, a limited range of interests and the development of repetitive activities.

“Routine is very important. We definitely see a change in behavior if the routine is different,” said Taylor. “They can be stubborn because they’re just not used to new activities.”

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Many of these autistic traits can be diminished or overcome with specialized education, but people with autism’s resistance to new pursuits can create obstacles to teaching them new skills.

Taylor often has students on the severe end of the spectrum, who may need assistance throughout their lives, but many of those diagnosed with milder forms of autism can learn to live independently.

For these cases, the development of communication skills can be the key to revealing a hidden intellect, undamaged by the disorder.

“He used to not be able to express his feelings, but he has a better understanding now,” said Rebecca Thompson in reference to her son who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a mild form of autism. “It just takes time and a lot of prompting.”

While Thompson’s son still isn’t interested in some of the subtler cues of human interaction, like facial expressions, and is still reluctant to make eye contact, he excels in math and science.

Early diagnoses and intervention have been shown to be the most effective treatment for disorders on the autism spectrum, none of which has a known cure.

“A little extra attention goes a long way with these kids,” said Dan McCauley, adaptive physical education specialist with South Lake Tahoe High School.

Families for Effective Autism Treatment, based out of Minden, offers support for families of autistic children. The group will be hosting a fundraiser from Aug. 3-5. For more information contact Wendi Fauria at (775) 782-4138 or wfauria@metalast.com

Thousands of families with autistic children will be affected by the outcome of federal hearings currently underway in Washington, D.C., while the roots of the disorder’s increased prevalence remain unclear to government scientists.

Since 1999, more than 4,800 legal claims of children developing autism as a result of childhood vaccinations have come forward.

Nine of these cases have been selected to appear before a special 3 judge panel. The decisions of these federal judges will guide legal precedent for the remainder of the claims.

Hearings on the cases began on June 11 are expected to last through the end of next week, according to reports.

Most of the families contend a mercury-containing preservative called thimerosal, once contained in measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations, was the cause of their child’s autism.

A British report in the late 1990’s linked the vaccine to autism, but larger scale studies in the years since have found no connection.

Thimerosal was removed from routine childhood vaccinations after a request from U.S. government officials in 1999, although its removal has done little to calm public fears over skyrocketing autism rates.

Characteristics of autistic behavior have become more readily recognized in recent years, causing concern among some scientists that the rates of reporting may be fueling the increase.

“Our estimates are becoming better and more consistent, though we can’t yet tell if there is a true increase in ASDs or if the changes are the result of our better studies,” said CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding in a press statement. “We do know, however, that these disorders are affecting too many children.”

For decades the best estimate for the prevalence of autism was 4 or 5 per 10,000 children, but a recently released Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in February puts the number closer to one in 150 in some U.S. communities, according to the CDC press release.

The 2002 study examined approximately ten percent of U.S. eight year olds born from 14 states.

What are Autism Spectrum Disorders?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described Autism Spectrum Disorders as “developmental disabilities defined by considerable impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests.”

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