Understanding Your Autistic Child

girl with balloonsHELPING FAMILIES COPE
“A most important initial step to understanding your child is by obtaining the best comprehensive evaluation, identifying the child’s strengths and weaknesses, having questions answered, and developing a plan for intervention,” says Dr. Donnelly, pediatric neurologist at CHOC and UC Irvine. “Parents and families need help and hope. They need to believe their child will improve and has a chance for a meaningful life. They can get help by contacting The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders in Santa Ana.”

TREATMENT FOR KIDS WITH AUTISM
“The main and most evidenced-based treatment is behavioral intervention, or Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA),” Dr. Donnelly says. “ABA is a method of analyzing behavior using certain principles to create a plan to change behavior using specific rewards and punishments, to facilitate social  interaction and communication, and eliminate negative behaviors. Other treatments can include special education programs, speech and language therapy, social skills groups, and occupational therapy. Medical evaluation and treatment focuses on making accurate diagnoses, determining etiology, supporting and educating the family, providing genetic information, treating any related problems, like seizures, and pinpointing associated behaviors such as ADHD, anxiety or aggression, and supporting behavioral strategies or medication to help improve symptoms.”

TEACHING YOUR CHILD
It’s important for parents and families to be engaged with their child, says Dr. Donnelly. “Speak and play with your child and learn how to be their most important mentor. Get to know them and how they learn best. Identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn how to facilitate their social communication skills and behavior. Become a lay expert in behavior intervention. Have an optimistic but realistic outlook.”

THE NEW TERM: AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as it is now called, encompasses autism and what was previously called Asperger syndrome,” says Dr. Donnelly. “ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by key behavioral features, including significant impairment in social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviors. The term “spectrum” is useful not only to describe a large group of varied individuals, but it also signifies a wide difference in the type and severity of specific behaviors. Symptoms can include things like poor social skills, atypical language, sensory issues, motor impairment and developmental delays.”

FAST FACTS

  • Percentage of National Institute of Health Research funds allocated to autism research annually: Less than 5 %
  • Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in children overall: 1 in 88
  • Prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder in boys: 1 in 54

View the full feature on Kids and Understanding Autism

Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly
Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly
CHOC and UC Irvine Pediatric Neurologist

PHYSICIAN FOCUS: DR. JOSEPH H. DONNELLY

Dr. Donnelly is the medical director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders located in Santa Ana, a partnership between CHOC Children’s, UC Irvine School of Medicine and Chapman College of Educational Studies. He completed an internship and residency in pediatrics at Boston City Hospital, and a fellowship in pediatric neurology at the Boston City Hospital-Boston University and Harvard University Neurology units. Dr. Donnelly specializes in child neurology and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other developmental disabilities.

Dr. Donnelly’s philosophy of care: “The secret of caring for the patient is “to care” for the patient (as first said by surgeon Francis Peabody in 1912 at a graduation of medical students). In order to care for a child, one must relate to the entire family and develop a trusting relationship where the physician and health care team helps support, educate and guide the family.”

EDUCATION:
Harvard College
Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington D.C.

BOARD CERTIFICATIONS:
Pediatrics Neurology with special qualification in child neurology

More about Dr. Donnelly

This article was featured in the Orange County Register on March 20, 2014, and was written by Amy Bentley.

Signs, Myths of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism_baby_smallerAutism Spectrum Disorder remains a mysterious but prevalent disorder that now is believed to affect one in 88 children and one in 54 boys in the United States. It’s also the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the country.

There is no medical detection or cure for autism. However, learning as much as possible about the condition helps families understand and better assist their child with autism, says Dr. Joseph H. Donnelly, a CHOC neurologist and the medical director of The Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders.

“The most obvious signs of autism emerge between 12 and 18 months of age,” says Dr. Donnelly.

Here are some signs that may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by 6 months of age or older
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

Parents of children showing these symptoms should ask their pediatrician for an immediate evaluation, advises Dr. Donnelly.

It’s a myth that children with autism lack strengths, says Dr. Donnelly. In fact, people with autism can have significant strengths and sometimes perform better, or are more capable, in certain areas than typical children.

“Never assume a child cannot do something. Try everything and discover a child’s strengths, weaknesses and learning style.” he says. “Children with autism can have learning disabilities like a typical child and this needs to be addressed the same way as with any child.”

Here are some other common myths about autism:

  • All children with autism don’t speak.
  • Children with autism all have an intellectual disability.
  • Autism is an emotional disorder.
  • People with autism don’t exhibit emotions.
  • People with autism can’t lead a meaningful life.

Common medical problems associated with autism include seizures, gastrointestinal problems, allergies and sleep difficulties, Dr. Donnelly says. Autism is often associated with varied behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

“Treatment is available.  Seek help from your pediatrician or someone with expertise in autism,” advises Dr. Donnelly.

Related articles:

  • Can children outgrow autism?
    A study recently published in the Journal of Child Neurology suggests that children may outgrow autism. We spoke to Dr. J. Thomas Megerian, pediatric neurologist and clinical director of the ...
  • CHOC Children’s and Thompson Foundation Announce New Autism Center
    CHOC Children’s and the William and Nancy Thompson Family Foundation (Thompson Family Foundation) recently unveiled a new collaboration that expands our region’s capacity to serve children with autism spectrum disorders ...
  • Autism Awareness and Safety
    By Kelly McKinnon-Bermingham, director of behavior intervention and Anna Laakman, director of education and training, at The Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders April is Autism Awareness Month. According to the ...