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What if we could diagnose autism much earlier than we thought? Two recently released studies have raised hopes that it just might be possible.

In one study funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that brain scans could reveal autism well before symptoms occur.  Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have also developed a highly reliable blood test that can detect autism early in a child’s life.

Both developments have been welcomed by autism advocates, including Michelle Yoder, center manager of Carolinas Rehabilitation Pediatric Therapy Pineville. “Being able to begin therapy early is key,” Michelle says.  “Because the young brain is so pliable, the earlier we start, the better the outcomes.”

Everyday Challenges

Infants are often referred to Pediatric Therapy Pineville because they’re having eating or sleeping problems, are overly colicky or are having sensory problems. About half of these children are eventually diagnosed with autism. Using current methods, the final diagnosis usually isn’t made until age three, delaying the start of therapy.

Tina Collop, an occupational therapist with Pediatric Therapy Pineville, part of Carolinas Rehabilitation, works with Ivanka on fine motor skills for functional hand use/grasp, visual motor integration and attention to task.

Tina Collop, an occupational therapist with Pediatric Therapy Pineville, part of Carolinas Rehabilitation, works with Ivanka on fine motor skills for functional hand use/grasp, visual motor integration and attention to task.

The center works on daily living skills like eating, dressing, bathing, sleeping, toileting and handwriting. Autistic children face challenges with these daily living skills because of impaired motor coordination, hypersensitivity to sound or touch, or difficulty planning and organizing their thoughts. The center works with patients from 18 months old to teenagers, often seeing patients for years.

“Because autism is a spectrum disorder, we tailor the treatment for each child; it’s not a cookie-cutter approach,” Michelle says. “Our ultimate goal is for the child to be the most functional that he or she can be in the home, school and community.”

A Team Approach

Michelle says a key part of the center’s efforts involves working with the family unit as a whole so progress can be achieved outside the therapy setting.

“We work closely with parents and siblings to provide education and support so the family feels empowered and equipped to help their child,” she says.  “Reaching milestones such as the child saying ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ or ‘I love you’ are just as exciting to us as they are to the parents,” she added.

One parent who has embraced the concept of active family involvement is Rosa Bowe, who has 5-year-old twins, Mateo and Ivanka, both of whom have autism. They were diagnosed at 2 years old.

“We want to be proactive to give them the best chance,” Rosa says.  “You can’t stop fighting –  you have to keep giving them what they need to succeed.  Every day, they show us things that they weren’t supposed to do.”