Monday, April 4, 2011
FACES OF AUTISM -- MICHAEL | Goodhart Photography, Northern Virginia Family and Child Portrait Professional Photographer
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I am offering four families with autistic children complimentary photojournalistic sessions, in exchange for being featured on my blog.
This is Michael. He's 7 years old. He loves the movies Cars, Ice Age, and Spongebob. He enjoys riding his bike and playing video games. He love his Mom, Dad, sister and grandparents. Sounds like the description of any typical 7 year old boy. There is one major difference -- Michael is autistic.
When Michael was about 22 months old, he stopped pointing to things, and he lost any sense of purposeful play. Whereas other children might move a car across a floor and play with it, an autistic child can spend 20 or more minutes just spinning the wheels.
Because his parents were familiar with autism, they quickly assembled a team composed of a psychologist, an Occupational Therapist, a Speech Language Therapist, a Physical Therapist, among others. They ran a battery of tests before diagnosing Michael with autism. The family immediately began a variety of therapeutic programs, including ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), a very popular program for teaching language.
One of Michael's parents' favorite memory is when Michael spoke his first spontaneous words at around 26 months. The family had stopped at Vacarros in Baltimore, hungry for canoli and coffee. Michael was staring intently at a plate of cookies. The woman behind the counter smiled at him and offered him one. He accepted happily. As the family left the restaurant, the woman called out, "Goodbye!" and Michael responded, "Bye bye".
Michael has learned a lot over the years, he's learned to speak and has good manners. When we met, he extended a hand to greet me, his eyes flickering up to mine for brief contact before darting away.
Yet some things are still hard for him. "There's a lot of similarities between autism and Alzheimers Disease," noted his father. Michael can't read yet, because he has trouble remembering the sounds letters make from day to day. He craves routine and can get very upset when his routines are changed. He often repeats himself, and his stories.
On the other hand, Michael is a beautiful little boy with a playful spirit who is capable of learning and communicating. "People just need to have a little patience," says his father, and they need to drop their preconceptions at the door because "autism presents itself differently in every child".
Autism rates are on the rise. It is 10 times more prevalent today than it was thirty years ago. Part of the increase can be explained by better diagnostic tools. Most children will show some signs of disrupted development by 12 months of age, and pediatricians are on the lookout for it. The sooner intervention can be started, the earlier adaptive and behavioral skills can be taught, the better the outcomes for most children.
Autism is widely believed to have a genetic root. If one child is autistic, there is a 5-10% chance siblings will also be on the autistic spectrum. For identical twins, the rate jumps to 60%. The fact it is not 100% with genetic twins seems to indicate that environmental factors may also be at play.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that those affected can exhibit a wide range of symptoms. But the hallmark of autism is impaired communication and social engagement. Many autistic children have delayed or echolalic speech, limited eye contact, and impaired abilities to initiate or sustain conversations once they learn to speak. They also frequently have sensory issues, a preoccupation with objects or subjects, and a rigid adherence to routines and/or rituals.
Autistic children can learn, however, and with regular, intensive intervention continue to make progress. They need understanding and patience. They simply are not on the same developmental trajectory as other children.
To learn more about autism, visit The American Austism Society