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Identifying, treating autism affects whole family


In the past two decades, autism diagnoses are on the rise — and experts can’t reach a consensus why.

Many believe it’s simply that the definition of what constitutes having the condition — that is, being on the autism “spectrum” — has been greatly expanded.

Others point to various environmental and/or genetic factors that have been exacerbated by modern life.

Still others speculate that increased societal awareness — April 2017 is the 10th annual National Autism Awareness Month — means that fewer “high-functioning” kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) fall through the cracks.

Regardless, “We know a lot more about the condition today than we did in the 1990s,” said Boca Raton therapist Natalia Perez, founder of Florida Family Support (flfamilysupport.com) and a longtime ASD specialist. “We now have many more assessment tools to properly identify ASD children and provide them with the kind of treatment that will help improve their condition.”

No matter where a child is on the spectrum, Perez said ASD affects three areas:

  • Speech
  • Socialization
  • Behavior

When the condition is severe, the characteristics are pronounced — and obvious to the layperson.

“The child is totally non-verbal and won’t make eye contact. Often, they’ll repeat certain words or phrases over and over again and perform a repetitive action like flapping their arms or spinning or rocking,” explained Perez.

But it’s those less obvious cases — the ones of kids who are maybe kind of “quirky” or just don’t know how to “fit in” — but can still function and attend regular school that Perez said are being increasingly identified.

Another aspect of ASD that folks must understand, noted Perez: “It’s never an exclusive diagnosis.”

Rather, the child often will have accompanying conditions such as such as anxiety disorder, depression, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, phobias, seizures, sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal disorder and/or obsessive compulsive disorder, among others.

As important as it is to treat the ASD child — which Perez does through a combination of applied behavioral analysis services, UCLA’s acclaimed PEERS program and Children’s Friendship Training — Perez stressed the need to focus on the entire family.

“The divorce rate for parents of ASD children is 80 percent,” Perez said. “Because so much of the family’s time and focus is directed at the ASD child, the marriage — and often the other siblings — are put on the back-burner.”

To combat this tendency, Perez recently launched Family Support Groups — a six-week series of twice-weekly group sessions designed to better train parents/caregivers/siblings in how to help their kids as well as buoy their spirits.

“During our support groups, we focus on providing family support and counseling to ensure they are prepared to handle the stressors and issues that are bound to present themselves,” explained Perez.

Perez schedules the Family Support Groups concurrent to (but in a separate room from) the children’s Social Skills Groups for both convenience and to further reinforce the priority on family.

“We want mom and dad, as well as the sisters, brothers and other relatives to feel as though they’re all in this together.”



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