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Students with autism learn life skills in Lodi

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Posted: Saturday, November 26, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 7:49 am, Sat Nov 26, 2011.

Cathy White places a piece of paper in front of Jonas Knutson. She tells him they are going to have a lesson on emotions. White points to the two lists on the sheet of paper while she explains the differences between positive and negative emotions. She asks him which facial expression would fit each emotion. She then asks Knutson if he would rather be positive or negative.

As the 20-year-old with curly brown hair tentatively pauses, he says, "I want to be positive." White then explains that everyone gets negative sometimes and it's OK.

Knutson is one of the 1 percent of children in the U.S. born with autism, a complex developmental disability that affects a person's ability to communicate and interact with others at varying degrees.

Autism appears to be increasing because of the psychological testing that is available to detect it, said Ramona Puget, who earned a bachelor of arts in psychology and is the president of the Kern Autism Society, a local chapter in the national organization of the Autism Society.

Early intervention of autism is crucial, she said.

"The sooner you are able to get them diagnosed and get them the help they need, the better," she said.

The exercise Knutson is engaging in is a part of a program called Building Connections, one of several at Speech Therapy Associates that are designed to provide high-quality, individualized therapy for preschool-age children up to young adults with autism or special needs. The organization is one place in Lodi that offers programs for autistic children to learn life skills and to communicate effectively in society.

Who autism affects, and its symptoms

It is estimated that one in 110 births, or one percent of the population of children in the U.S. from the ages 3 to 17, will have an autism spectrum disorder, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as cited by the Autism Society.

There is no known single cause for autism, but it is accepted that it's caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function, according to the research. It is a neurological disorder that is present at birth, but symptoms may not appear until much later. At 12 to 15 months of age, parents may start to notice that something is not quite right, she said.

During the early stages of development, a potentially autistic child may show signs such as lack of developing language, lack of eye contact and repetitive behaviors that may seem a little odd, said Puget. Some children may develop some language skills, but lose them later.

"It isn't until you start noticing deficits in language and eye contact where you will start to see some areas of concern for development," she said.

Robin Knutson, Jonas Knutson's mother, said she and her husband first noticed Jonas' use of language was a little odd. He was also echolalic, where he imitated what others said but had no originality in his own language. He had behaviors that were self-stimulating, such as staring at objects or lining them up.

On the other hand, Jonas had other abilities most children his age hadn't yet developed. He could identify shapes such as a triangle and an octagon at age 2. He also demonstrated perfect pitch.

"We would go visit my parents, and before we rang the door bell he would hum it at the same pitch," she said. "He could carry a tune. I remember he used to sing 'Shenendoah.'"

Some autistic children may lack spontaneity or "make believe" play because they don't understand it, said Puget. Many will have sensory issues and may also develop habits such as repetitive hand motions or walking on their toes all the time. They may have a persistent preoccupation with objects, such as carrying around lug nuts like prized possessions or collecting and hoarding rocks.

Autistic children are also inflexible when it comes to routines. They can be very ritualistic, such has having to turn on a light every time they come into the house.

"If it goes out of that structure, it really upsets them," she said.

Diagnosed at age 4 with high-functioning autism, or Asperger's, Owen McGuire's symptoms were not as prevalent as some of the other kids', said his mother, Sheila McGuire.

A special education teacher at Lodi Unified School District, Sheila knew what kind of symptoms to look for. In social situations, he had trouble figuring out what to say. He also had trouble handling changes in his routine, where a typical 3- or 4-year-old would just go with it, she said.

"For Owen, the biggest red flag was his social skills. We would have to prompt him to say hello or goodbye. He wouldn't do it on his own," said Sheila.

At first, he was receiving speech therapy for articulation at age 3. Sheila and her husband thought he would grow out of it but as time went on, he suddenly seemed to get a little worse.

Academically, he's really bright, which is typical with high-functioning autism, said Sheila. He attends kindergarten in a regular classroom setting, but he is reading at a second-grade level and can do third-grade math. A lot of people say he's very smart, but that's part of it, she said.

Children who can do well academically are known as "little professors" said Puget.

"They may not be able to fit in and may come off as an extremely shy child, but (they) are very good academically," she said.

Diagnosis and treatment

Owen places a chip on the board of the game "Sequence for Kids." He has matched three characters in a row with his cards on the board. He only needs one more to win the game. He finishes his turn by drawing another card.

"Kangaroo!" he says.

The other two players then take their turns.

"Whose turn is it?" asks Sharon Palmer.

The 5-year-old boy with dark hair smiles and points to himself.

"Good, you're using your non-verbal skills," she says to him.

The game is part of an exercise in the Circle of Friends group at Speech Therapy and Associates, which helps teach them turn-taking skills and keeps them aware of what is going on around them, said Palmer, a licensed speech-language pathologist. Usually, they play a simple game or take turns rolling a ball back and forth.

"They are there to work on social skills. We work on eye contact and making sure they are looking at the person who they are talking to, but not staring at them," she said.

After the "Sequence" game is over, Palmer says, "Now we are going to play the 'How do you feel?' game." She makes a face and asks McGuire what emotion she is showing. After he answers, sad, she asks him why he gave that answer.

"Because your eyes are facing down," he says.

She then asks him when he would feel sad. His answer: when it's raining and he can't play outside.

Children who have social skills deficits have a really hard time reading non-verbal communication, including facial expressions, said Palmer. A lot of times, their own facial expression will have a "flat affect," which means no emotion is shown on their face.

"We're working on teaching them not only to identify with other people, but to be able to express that themselves," she said.

Most children are diagnosed with autism at age 2 or 3, said Puget. If a parent suspects their child has the disease, the first step is to talk to the child's pediatrician.

Once autism is detected, an extensive interview is conducted with the parents to gather information such as speech and language development, as well as newborn-infant history and prenatal history. Then, several assessment tests, including living skills, motor skills, socialization and intellectual functioning, are administered.

These assessments are given every three years to see if the child has gained or lost skills, said Puget.

"They will want to see if they have the same skills in the following three years. They want to make sure they assess it properly," she said.

Then, it is important to get the child into an early educational prevention program to help redevelop language skills and handle the basics such as reciting their ABCs, said Puget. Generally, this is a special education program or speech therapy, though some people have also tried music therapy and occupational therapy. Most importantly, it is the early educational introduction.

"You want to start with the basics. You want to make sure the child is able to get that general information," said Puget.

Sometimes it takes a blend of different things to make it work for the child, but the choice on which treatment option is really very individual for every family, she added.

"It's trial and error, whatever works for your son or daughter. If it can make life a little simpler, that's the best plan," she said.

Since Owen has been attending the program, Sheila says he has become a different child. Behaviorally, he has learned the difference between big problems and little problems, as well as how to work through them.

In the past, he would just walk away when children initiated conversations with him. Now he is carrying on conversations with kids his own age, she said. He also learned how to pick up on non-verbal cues, such as when someone is finished talking. He then knows it's time to stop talking.

"His social skills have improved dramatically and his communication skills are better," she said.

After Jonas was diagnosed at age 3, he was placed into the Central Valley Autism Project, a program that involves 40 hours a week of one-on-one intensive behavior training. He began attending the Circle of Friends program at Speech Therapy and Associates, where he attended once a week to participate in activities with other children.

White, who is the speech language pathologist who works with Knutson and others like him, said her goal is to help them be successful communicators and to be successful in school and in social groups.

"My personal goal for these guys is to help them be as successful as they can be in society and to be able to contribute," she said.

The future for autistic children

In August, Jonas returned to the program after taking a few summers off. He plans to go to college next year, and is back to learn how to handle those additional responsibilities of being on his own, said White.

A person with an impairment in social skills will always have it, said White.

"A client may learn all the concepts necessary for that time and then may need to come back later on because of new social concepts they are encountering," she said.

Jonas wakes early in the day to do his job as a newspaper carrier for the Lodi News-Sentinel.

"I put down newspapers on people's porches," he says proudly, with a big smile.

After completing his route, he goes home to get some more sleep before going to school. He spends his afternoons working out on the machines at Twin Arbor Athletic Club. He enjoys swimming in his pool, playing the guitar and trombone, and singing in an adult choir.

As Jonas sits at the small table opposite White, the two talk about what it means to be pessimistic versus optimistic.

White asks him how he feels about people and if he thinks everyone is friendly. At first he answers yes, but he then changes his answer to no.

White said one of the hardest things for Knutson is "perspective-taking," or understanding that others may have a thought that is different than his. He may not realize when someone is being mean or trying to bully him, she said.

"He's super-optimistic, so it's hard for him to handle situations that may be upsetting for him," she said.

Next year, Jonas plans to attend Taft College, a community college in the town of Taft. It has a transition to independent living program that will teach him how to live independently and teaches skills such as how to manage a checkbook, cook and clean.

"I feel like he's doing great. He's got a lot more to learn but I think he has great potential," said Robin Knutson.

Jonas says the Building Communications program has helped him build his confidence in following rules at school and doing his work. He's hoping to learn to be a preschool teacher's aide.

"I've always liked little children, and they like me. And I'm good with little ones," he said.

Contact Features Editor Pam Bauserman at pamelab@lodinews.com. Find the best bargains in Lodi on Pam's blog, Saving with Pam.

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  • Cynthia Parker posted at 8:14 am on Sun, Nov 27, 2011.

    ciaparker2 Posts: 1

    This article is incorrect when it states that autism is present from birth. Autism did not exist before 1943, the neurologist Dr. Leo Kanner first described it then, saying it had never before been seen or described in all of history up until then, including when he and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins collaborated in writing an extensive compendium of every neurological disease known as of the late 1930s. It first occurred a few years after the pertussis vaccine began to be used.

    Europe now, except for Great Britain, has a fraction of the cases of autism we do, doubtless because they give children a fraction of the vaccines we do. Just thirty years ago the rate of autism in the U.S. was only one in something like thirty thousand. It went up alarmingly when they started giving the MMR in the late '80s, spiked upward again when they started giving the hep-B at birth in '91, and then again with the Prevnar in '02. Countries that have not followed our lead have not experienced these spikes. Seven years ago when there was a week in March of special issues of news magazines and a week on the Today show devoted to it, the rate was one in 150. Last year it was said to be one in a hundred. Last week when I looked, it was one in 88 in Missouri, one in 48 boys.

    At most, children are born with a propensity to react badly to vaccines. The Merck Manual recognizes that encephalitis can be caused by disease or by a vaccine. The brain damage of encephalitis, when the immune system reacts to the vaccine with an excessive inflammatory response, can manifest as autism, ADHD, or a seizure disorder. The automimmune response triggered by vaccines can result in asthma, bowel disease, diabetes, and all kinds of allergies.

    My baby was given the hep-B at birth without my knowledge or permission. She nursed avidly the first few days, then at four days old reacted to the vaccine with four days and nights of endless screaming, vaccine-induced encephalitis. She lost one pound two ounces the first two days of the screaming, unable to feed because of the excruciating pain. She was later diagnosed with autism. Thousands of other parents' babies have suffered the same experience or even death from the hepaptitis-B vaccine, many thousands more were developing normally, walkiing, talking, socializing, until they got the MMR at around one year of age, when they suddenly plummeted into autism and/or bowel disease. You cannot say that they were born with autism. These babies were damaged by a vaccine whose effects are many times more severe than the damage that would be caused by measles, mumps, and rubella.

    Let's stop just repeating the taglines publicized by the pharmaceutical companies that have billions of dollars on the table to play for. This issue is a tragic reality for millions of families burdened by vaccine-damaged children, and is going to be an ever-growing burden for society when it has to figure out how to support milliions of disabled adults for life. Do you think Big Pharma is going to foot the bill?

  • Maurine Meleck posted at 2:26 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    Maurine meleck Posts: 3

    "It's accepted that autism is caused by abnormalities in brain structure"--says who?
    They don't know this-studies done saying it's caused by big heads, too many cells,funny looking faces etc have proved absolutely nothing. Even those who did the studies say there is no definitive proof of any of this.
    Tens of thousands parents say their children weere developing normally until they regressed into autism following their vaccinations. So I doubt their early satges of development gave clues to anything regarding autism.
    I'm glad the child and adult mentioned in this article are doing so well just with behavioral help. The majority of children on the spectrum today will not be going to college. Many are teenagers still in diapers and non-verbal. At the other extreme, hundreds of children today have recovered totally from autism through bio-medical treatments. This is a whole other side you have left out of the story.
    For most children, behavioral therapy doesn't enable them to go to college and to recover, but you can combine ABA with biomedical treatments.
    Two-thirds of children on the spectrum who get behavioral and educational therapy will cost the US millions less? I would love to see something to back this up.
    So sad this article is so biased and uninformed.
    Maurine Meleck SC

  • Kenneth Stoller posted at 2:25 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    KPStollerMD Posts: 1

    I am the medical director of the Hyperbaric Oxygen Clinic of Sacramento and the San Francisco Institute for Hyperbaric Medicine. I have to point out an error in this story. Children with what is being called "Autism" are not born with this malady in the vast majority of cases. What we are calling "Autism" is an environmental illness that has caused brain damage - environmental encephalitis. There are several causes but pesticides and heavy metals are at the top of the list, and aspartame and fluoride didn't help matters. And yes, the toxic soup we inject children with called vaccinations are chock full of heavy metals and toxic chemicals. that literally blow brains, in a sense.

    I resigned from the American Academy of Pediatrics when they started defending the use of mercury in vaccines: http://www.bodiesinrebellion.com/resignationletter.pdf

    I posted a video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36_qz2beMaE

    we ignore these truths at our own peril.

  • Maurine Meleck posted at 2:09 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    Maurine meleck Posts: 3

    There are just too many errors in this one-sided opinion piece. Children(almost all) are not born with autism. A genetic epidemic is virtually im[ossible. Whereas 30 years ago the numbers were 1 in 10,000 with autism, today it's higher than 1 in 58 young boys and 1 in 100 children.
    It is much more than a developmental disorder or a neurological. one. Autism is metabolic disorder, affecting every organ in the body(including the brain). These children suffer from real biological illnesses like oxidative stress, immune dysfunction, inflammatory bowel disease, encephalopathy and often seizures.
    Autism doesn't SEEM to be increasing-it HAS and IS increasing to numbers that schools can no longer handle and organizations for autism have no more money to provide services. Therre is a child with autism on every street, in every grocery store. It has nothing to do with a test that has been provided to diagnose them because we didn't have the test 2 decades ago. Just ridiculous. (continued)
    Maurine Meleck, SC

  • Anne Dachel posted at 1:32 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    amdachel Posts: 5

    In 2009, President pro Tem of the California State Senate Darrell Steinberg announced the establishment of the Senate Select Committee on Autism (ASD). Steinberg said that their intention is to make autism a "public health priority."


    Rick Rollens of the MIND INSTITUTE spoke:

    "Autism is epidemic in this state as it is throughout the country."

    "Autism population is skewed dramatically toward young children."

    "Eight-four percent of the autism population is under the age of 21."

    "More six and seven year olds in the system than all the adults with autism combined."

    We were given the mindboggling numbers: There were "14,000 students with autism a decade ago" in California, and "46,000 students today, and growing."

    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism

  • Anne Dachel posted at 1:22 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    amdachel Posts: 5

    Dr. Thomas Insel, head of the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) created by Congress to deal with autism, has said that 80 percent of Americans with autism are under the age of 18 and he warned that we need "to prepare for a million people who may be in need of significant services." Nothing is being done to handle the approaching wave of dependent adults that will descend on social services in the coming years. The IACC now calls autism "a national health emergency."

    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism http://www.ageofautism.com/

  • Anne Dachel posted at 1:19 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    amdachel Posts: 5

    It should be pointed out that when we talk about autism, the subject is almost always children with autism. We're told here that the increase in autism is due to "increased awareness," at least in part. However we're not given any other explanation.

    In truth, the rate of one in 110 is based on studies of eight year olds, not eighty year olds. No one has ever found a comparable rate among older adults. The young adults now aging out of childhood services are the tip of the autism tsunami about to descend on the United States.

    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism http://www.ageofautism.com/

  • Anne Dachel posted at 1:12 pm on Sat, Nov 26, 2011.

    amdachel Posts: 5

    Three times this story refers to children being born with autism. Ramona Puget claims, "There is no known single cause for autism, but it is accepted that it's caused by abnormalities in brain structure or function, according to the research. It is a neurological disorder that is present at birth, but symptoms may not appear until much later."

    Many thousands of autism parents would disagree. Their children were born healthy and were normally developing until they dramatically regressed following routine vaccinations. The U.S. government has agreed that vaccines can trigger autism.

    Medical experts at Health and Human Services conceded the vaccine damage case of Hannah Poling, a young Georgia girl. They agreed that the nine vaccines she received in a single doctor's visit caused her to regress into autism. CBS News ran this story about Hannah Poling last year: Family to Receive $1.5M+ in First-Ever Vaccine-Autism Court Award. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-31727_162-20015982-10391695.html

    Are we to believe that vaccines have nothing to do with autism--unless you're Hannah Poling?:

    Anne Dachel, Media editor: Age of Autism http://www.ageofautism.com/



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