Preventing Autism – Is It Possible?

Can autism be prevented? This is often a topic of debate. So, today I’m going to be sharing my opinion about preventing autism.

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Preventing autism is a hot topic. There’s no research that I know of to prove or disprove that autism can be prevented. There is a lot of research to show that signs of autism can be treated and, in some cases, reversed using behavioral treatment. This was first proven in the late 1980s, more than three decades ago. (Lovaas, 1987).

Quite frankly, I am outraged that more people don’t know children with autism can become indistinguishable or recover from this disorder if they are treated aggressively very early on. As a behavior analyst, I’ve spent more than a decade working specifically with toddlers age one to three and have some first-hand experience with toddlers where I’ve been involved with preventing autism and reversing the earliest warning signs of autism.

 Can you prevent autism?

Let me tell you about a former client I’ll call Matt. In this case, I feel like we have some proof that autism was prevented. I started working with Matt when he was just two and a half years old. He had previously had one year of early intervention services in another state. They had recently moved to my county. They had tried to evaluate him at a renowned teaching hospital in Philadelphia, but Matt screamed during the entire evaluation. The team at the children’s hospital requested videos of him working with his therapist. Since I had been previously trained in the STAT (the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers) developed by Wendy Stone, I was able to do a STAT test and took videos of everything.

At that point, I had just started working with Matt. He was two and a half. We got the videos and the cut-off for the STAT  (which was above 2 points) indicated that he had autism. I think his score was 3.25. The worst score was 4, so he was definitely above the cut-off for autism. Then, we had to wait another four months to get into a developmental pediatrician. We waited for the appointment. We sent in the videos as instructed. The developmental pediatrician reviewed the STAT videos right before coming into to seeing Matt. I was along for the visit. Later, after the visit, as part of the closing comment she told us, the developmental pediatrician, after watching the videos, she was fully prepared to come in and make the diagnosis based on the videos. But, when she saw Matt herself, after four months of working with my program that I set up in their home, after four months Matt was now pointing, now showing us things, and while his language and behavior were still issues, after four months of intervention, the developmental pediatrician said that Matt was not on the autism spectrum.

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Matt still needed interventions and was difficult to potty train and teach advanced language skills and continue to have fairly high levels of problem behavior at home. But he avoided the diagnosis of autism all together and is now in his early elementary school with language, social, and academic skills at or above grade level. He no longer displays any signs of autism.

I have other former clients like Matt, but many of these kids, unlike Matt, did get the diagnosis of autism. But we were able to turn things around quickly using my step by step procedure. The key is, in my opinion, is to train parents early to look for any deviation in developmental abilities and start intervening immediately.

In summary, we know for sure that signs of early autism can be treated, and in some kids reversed altogether, if caught early and treated aggressively. If a young child has delays, it doesn’t matter if it’s autism or not. We need to treat the delays early and aggressively. I always say you want to treat any delays as the most severe autism you ever saw, that way years from now you won’t look back and think, “I should’ve done more.” Even if a child just has a mild speech delay or if the child turns out not to have any delays at all, teaching young children how to talk earlier, follow directions, sleep in their own bed through the night, eat a variety of foods, and play with others is really just good parenting that will help any child.

For a free workshop focusing specifically on how to help toddlers with delays, with or without a diagnosis of autism, you can go to marybarbera.com/workshops. Wherever you’re watching, leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, and share this video with others who might benefit. I’ll see you right here next week.

Lovaas, O. I. (1987). Behavioral treatment and normal educational and intellectual functioning in young autistic children. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology,55(1), 3-9. doi:10.1037//0022-006x.55.1.3

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