The Gibbs family hasn’t let Achilles’ diagnosis of autism slow them down from enjoying family time out, thanks to the help of ABA therapy. ANITA GIBBS/Contributed

Throughout the country and the Florida Keys, April is celebrated as Autism Awareness Month. Local groups like the Autism Society of the Keys are encouraging parents to stay vigilant for early indicators.

By understanding developmental benchmarks at different ages, parents can monitor how their child is progressing. For children with autism, early detection can make a huge difference on how the early part of their lives plays out.

“I’m a huge believer in early intervention. I don’t think my son would be the kid he is today if we hadn’t started when we started,” said Anita Gibbs, mother of 4-year-old Achilles.

How kids play, learn, speak, move and act reveal important clues about their development. Though children progress at their own pace, by specific ages certain developmental milestones should be met. If children aren’t meeting those milestones, it might be time to talk to a pediatrician.

“Usually the pediatrician is the first one who has an inkling,” said Amanda Alfonso, who owns Amy’s Angels. “They can refer him to a neurologist to see why they aren’t performing certain tasks, like grasping things, for example,” said Alfonso. Amy’s Angels Healthcare Inc. and similar agencies help habilitate developmentally disabled children.

Children can demonstrate behavioral cues that hint at autism as early as six months. However, a diagnosis is not typically made until 18 months. That’s because symptoms of autism can appear and fade away within the first two years of a child’s life. Children demonstrating developmental delay can catch up to their peers within those first two years. On the other hand, children meeting their milestones can begin to regress in their development within that time. It’s also important to consider that some high functioning children with autism aren’t diagnosed until they begin attending school and social issues arise.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents routinely screen their infants for autism as part of 18-month and 24-month well-baby examinations. Often, children younger than 2 are more likely diagnosed with developmental delay until further tests are done to determine whether they have autism.

“We first found out that there was something not quite right at 18 months. We had taken him to a pediatrician, who told us we had to take him to the neurologist,” said Gibbs. “Within 20 minutes they determined he had autism. At that time he didn’t do anything, he didn’t talk, he didn’t babble, he didn’t look you in the eye, or play with other kids.”

Once a child has been diagnosed with autism, a nationally board certified behavioral analyst is able to work with parents and the child to develop therapy geared to improving specific skills. The Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapists apply different techniques to make changes in behavior.

“The therapy really helps them to adapt day-to-day to socialize and behave,” said Alfonso. “They can integrate with others in school, and caregivers see that they are calmer and concentrate better. It has to be a consistent routine. They need to have a set routine, a time to play, a time to do homework. There has to be a level of discipline.”

Part of the therapy is improving a child’s level of social, emotional, communication, language, cognitive, and physical ability. Therapists and analysts have the ultimate goal of developing life skills the children will need to lead more productive and independent lives. Therapists encourage parents to participate as much as possible by reinforcing the exercises they’ve begun.

Achilles started his behavioral therapy at 21 months, working four hours a day five days a week until he was almost 3-1/2 years old. Achilles learned how to communicate with pictures first, then words, then sentences. He often tells his mother he loves her, and that she’s his best friend. Now 4-1/2, Achilles still does his therapy five days a week, but now he’s down to two hours. With kindergarten approaching soon, his occupational therapist is working on issues with his motor skills to prepare him to start writing.

“Now he’s a completely different kid (since starting therapy); he talks, he has his own personality, he learns like everybody else,” said Gibbs. “If parents aren’t doing the same thing as the therapist, it’s not going to be as successful, though.”

Alfonso said that for many parents a diagnosis of autism can be difficult to accept. Parents worry about the quality of life their children are going to have. But for parents like Gibbs, autism comes with a silver lining.

“If it wasn’t for autism I don’t think he would be the same way. He’s caring and sweet and concerned about others,” she said. “He’s taught me a lot more than I could ever teach him, to slow down and be patient.”

The Autism Society of the Keys will host its Light It Up charity dinner on Saturday, April 28 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at the Courtyard Marriott in Marathon. Tickets are $50 for adults, and $20 for kids 12 and under. For tickets and info, call Jill Campbell at 305-942-5172.

Potential indicators of autism

Social and Emotional

Shy and Withdrawn

Doesn’t smile at people

Overwhelmed by big group

Overwhelmed by change

Unfounded Fears

Crying for no reason

Screaming for no reason

Doesn’t like to be touched 

Language/Communication

Very limited vocabulary

Very little to no verbal communication

Repeating the same phrase

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem solving)

Loses skills once had

Obsessing with objects

Sensitive to loud noises

Sensitive to bright lights

Movement/ Physical Development

Inability to crawl

Inability to walk

Inability to grasp objects

Cannot stand, even when supported

Doesn’t learn gestures

Doesn’t point to things

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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