ST. LOUIS - The word autism strikes fear in the hearts of parents because there are no clear cut answers about its cause. The newest data indicates one in 68 U.S. children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of impairment or disability that children with ASD can have. Some children are mildly impaired by their symptoms, while others are severely disabled.
For Paula Juelich, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specialized in neurological rehabilitation, the autism diagnosis of her 2 ½-year-old son, David, was definitely unexpected. “He met all of his developmental milestones appropriately,” Paula said. “When he was 2, his language was more advanced than his sister’s had been at the same age. He also had great eye contact and actively engaged with people– not only with family but also with strangers – at church, on airplanes, and this had always been the case.”
That was true until he was around 2 years and 2 months old. “I noticed a decline. His language stalled and he started having sensory sensitivity and behavioral issues. I was watching it unfold before my eyes,” she recalled.
Paula had suspicions of autism, but didn’t know for sure. She was confused because David still had eye contact, but it became more fleeting so she consulted with colleagues at work. “I was fearful it could have been a tumor or something far worse. Something was clearly developing,” she said. “Days before we got the diagnosis I turned in notice at my job. I knew that whatever it was, it was serious and I needed to be there for him.”
After a lengthy evaluation with Mercy Kids neurologist Dr. Denis Altman, it was determined David had an autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Altman told Paula her son was bright and with early intervention he had a really good shot at making progress. He referred Paula to the Mercy Intensive Early Intervention Program (MIEIP), part of Mercy Kids Therapy and Development Center. The program is for kids ages 18 months to 36 months
MIEIP is held four mornings a week. Each child receives a special, individualized treatment program designed by Mercy experts, including occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, behavioral analysis and nutritional guidance. Its curriculum is based on principles from the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM).
“We start kids early because research has shown that early intervention can positively change the way the brain functions,” said Mercy Kids occupational therapist Tina Preston, MIEIP team leader. “We use strategies and techniques that make people the center of attention versus objects. We also use things naturally occurring in life to teach, such as play and meal time. ”
Kids on the spectrum have core deficits nonverbal and social communication. Tina mentioned people often think of communication as verbal, but a lot is nonverbal – such as eye contact, gestures and facial expressions.
Paula recalled a basic lesson when David first started. “They taught him how to point and follow a point. He was losing his eye contact and they helped bring it back. Without Mercy and this program, I don’t know where David would be. Not only have they helped David, but they have empowered me to take charge of his care.”
“We developed a collaborative relationship from day one and that has continued,” Paula said. “That’s what sets them apart – it’s the combination of relationship and technical skill that’s so important, not just for the healing of the children but also for the family.”
“We give families hope and encouragement to see what their children are capable of – not what they ‘think’ because of the diagnosis,” Tina said. “The abilities of any child and what they can learn at a young age are often underestimated.”
“Mercy sets the bar for where David is supposed to be – and they have high expectations for kids because they know they will live up to it,” Paula added. “We take what we’ve learned at Mercy and make sure the rest of his caregivers – school, home, etc., - are on the same page.”
Paula had one prayer when David was diagnosed. “I asked God to put in my path what we needed to help David heal,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done it better.”