As autism prevalence increases, it’s a struggle to find therapy

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Therapy for Autistic Kids

Paraprofessional Jessica Wein helps Josh Nazzaro stay focussed while attending class virtually from his home in Wharton, N.J., Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Without any in-school special education services for months, Nazzaro’s normally sweet demeanor has sometimes given way to aggressive meltdowns that had been under control before the pandemic. The teenager, who has autism and is nonverbal, often wanted no part of his online group speech therapy sessions, and when he did participate, he needed constant hands-on guidance from aides hired by his family. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

INDIANAPOLIS — For many families, autism is a life-changing diagnosis. No two individuals diagnosed with autism are the same, nor are they expected to be, so each family’s journey is different — now, more and more families are going on this journey together.

In the year 2000, one in every 150 children was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Now, that number is one in 54 children. It is reported to be in all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups, with boys being 4.5 times more commonly diagnosed than girls.

It’s important to note that since ASD is a spectrum, there is no cookie-cutter “look” of what ASD is like in people. Some may have difficulties communicating, others may just outright not communicate at all. Some may have a hard time understanding social cues and body language, others may not understand something as seemingly simple as waving goodbye. Some flap their arms, rock in place or fidget. Some may become obsessively interested in a very particular topic and others may be reliant on routine. Others are prone to emotional outbursts, especially when in an overstimulating environment.

ASD looks different on each person diagnosed, so the wide range of criteria, along with greater awareness about the disability, is documented to be the main factor in the increasing diagnoses. There is widespread misinformation about vaccines linked with causing ASD, but that has since been proven to be false by several different studies.

Another factor includes the misrepresentation of children of color — black children tend to receive a diagnosis later in life than their white counterparts if they were to receive a diagnosis at all. The same occurs with Hispanic children.

Thankfully, with programs to raise awareness and more research highlighting ASD disparities, the gap between children of different races being diagnosed is shrinking. As disparities are being identified, more children are able to be diagnosed and receive the potential help they’d need.

However, children with ASD are faced with one glaring problem: a shortage of therapists.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is used in therapy sessions for children with ASD to help increase positive behaviors and social interactions. It’s the most recognized and recommended approach, most effective when started during early childhood between 20 to 40 hours a week — and there is a shortage of ABA-Certified Individuals, most especially in lower-income areas. Several attempts have been made to try and improve treatment accessibility, yet shortages persist.

That is, of course, after children have been on a long waiting list.

This also comes with a shortage of mental health professionals in general, with an average of 30 psychologists per 100,000 people and 15.6 psychiatrists per 100,000 people. The Midwest is on par with the national average.

This shortage has gotten worse during the pandemic.

Indiana is looking to treat this issue, addressing the needs of Hoosiers and making investments towards better mental health resources. With increasing knowledge of this, many first responders, such as IMPD and firefighters in Pike Township, are receiving training on ASD awareness and how to handle the most extreme ASD cases.

Another way people are combatting inaccessibility is by looking into other forms of therapy, such as sound therapy and service animals. Of course, it’s not a “cure” for ASD, as no cure exists in the first place, but it has shown to help at least alleviate symptoms, and work nicely complementing ABA therapy.

Treatment and helping someone you know with ASD is not hopeless, just challenging, but as more and more people are learning about the disability and how to work with it, help will be able to be accessible outside of the shortage in therapy.

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