This article originally appeared in the May 31, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Just a decade ago, autism was a mysterious diagnosis that left parents and physicians alike puzzled over the next steps to help children with this disorder. Fortunately, research and our understanding of the autism spectrum have grown astronomically in recent years.
Despite the significant amount of research doctors have done, there is no one single path of treatment to help a child with autism. The autism spectrum is broad, encompasses many different symptoms and differs from child to child. This vast difference from one child to another means medical teams and families have to work together to find the best path of treatment, based on the individual’s needs.
A wealth of autism research in recent years has inspired experts to develop unique programs to help fulfill the needs of children with autism. These programs are offered through autism advocacy organizations, community health partnerships and at pediatric hospitals throughout the country.
At the Knights of Columbus Developmental Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, team members have developed programs to address many challenges experienced by children with autism: socializing with other children, communicating with their family and even being examined by a doctor or getting blood tests.
Many children with autism resist being examined by a doctor, having blood tests or even being touched at all, including a hug from their parents. To help children overcome this fear, SSM Cardinal Glennon uses a dog therapy program to make a child more comfortable with the doctor or during tests. Trained therapy dog Higgins (a Goldendoodle with his own hospital badge) distracts children during the test or physical exam and even allows them to do mock exams on him, listening to his heart and taking his height.
“Most children naturally love dogs, and having Higgins at the exam with them makes them so much more comfortable,” said Dr. Rolanda Maxim, director of the Knights of Columbus Developmental Center at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “Being able to watch us do an exam on Higgins helps take away the unknown and shows our patients that being at the doctor’s office is not a frightening or scary thing. In addition we use this program to address sleep issues, anxiety, independence skills and social skills.”
Dogs without Higgins’ credentials can be helpful for children with autism as well. Part of SSM Cardinal Glennon’s dog therapy program is helping train family pets to perform basic duties that help children with autism, including acting as a youngster’s watchdog to eliminate the possibility that a child may wander off when parents are not looking.
Families of children with autism often struggle with the best ways to communicate with their child and encourage their child to communicate with others. Many programs have been developed to help families tackle this issue.
The Move to Communicate Group at SSM Cardinal Glennon helps improve sensory, motor skills, eye contact and social skills and behaviors for children 2 ½ to 5 years old. While their children are learning these skills, parents also work with group leaders to learn the best ways to encourage their children and help them want to communicate with the outside world.
Difficulty in communicating is a challenge that follows children with autism from childhood to their teenage and school years. Learning to communicate is an ongoing process for those with autism who may feel more comfortable retreating within themselves and not engaging with the outside world. Developing a social life and understanding how to talk to others is critically important for all children and teenagers.
For so many of us, connecting with others is so natural that we don’t think about how we are able to create relationships and maintain them. For children with autism, these connections can seem impossible to make. Teens with high-functioning autism can gain these needed social skills through an SSM Cardinal Glennon program known as PEERS. This weekly program can help teenagers learn to do the things we take for granted when it comes to making friends: finding common interests, using humor appropriately, making phone calls and even learning how to keep a conversation going.
More support for autism research exists now than ever before. Just last month, landmarks around St. Louis and all around the world were lit up blue in honor of autism awareness. These days, parents of children with autism have many resources available to help their family through this challenging diagnosis. They need only ask for help.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.