Unraveling the mysteries of Autism

By Karen Kennedy

“My child doesn’t play well with others and regularly throws tantrums. Could he have autism?

“My toddler isn’t talking yet. The doctor says she might just be a ‘late bloomer,” but I’m worried she has autism.

“My preschooler is obsessed with one certain object and won’t play with any other toys. I’ve read that’s a warning sign of autism. Is that true?

These are the kinds of inquiries therapists at autism treatment centers field every day, along with panicked phone calls from parents whose fears have been confirmed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis, and who desperately want to know, “What do we do now?”

What is Autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a group of nearly a thousand complex disorders of brain development. It can manifest itself in atypical social interaction, repetitive behaviors, lack of empathy, obsession with a particular object or topic, a strong aversion to physical contact or changes in routine, and almost always, moderate to severe language and communication breakdown (25% of those with autism are completely non-verbal and must rely on alternative forms of communication.) While significant numbers of autism patients are also afflicted with an intellectual disability, others are extremely gifted in visual arts, music or math. 

Despite its prevalence today (currently, one in sixty-eight children in the U.S. receives an ASD diagnosis each year,) the causes of autism and other related brain disorders are still not fully understood. While research has definitively linked the disorder to genetic mutations, the jury is still out as to what affect other environmental factors (such as pollution or food additives) might have on the development of the disorder. Boys are four times more likely than girls to develop it, and heredity plays a factor as well.

Over the years, desperate parents have tried special diets, essential oil treatments, weighted blankets and vests, hyperbaric chambers and chelation (a chemical process in which heavy metals are removed from the blood.) Currently, the scientific community endorses only one form of treatment—applied behavior analysis (ABA.)

Help Is Right Here

BACA

While parents in other parts of the country may struggle to find help locally, those who live in Hamilton County are fortunate that one of the preeminent treatment facilities in the world is just around the corner.

Headquartered in Fishers since 2009, the Behavior Analysis Center for Autism (the BACA) was founded by Dr. Carl Sundberg, who studied behavior disorders and therapy, along with his brother Mark, under Dr. Jack Michael at Western Michigan University. Michael was a colleague of noted behavior researcher B.F. Skinner, whose “operant conditioning” work with lab rats proved that behaviors can be modified by immediate positive or negative reinforcers. Skinner also posited that there was a significant difference between the formal properties of language (simply being able to name something) and the functional properties of language (understanding the use or context of the same item.) This theory is key in teaching language to the developmentally delayed, who, for example, might be able to identify a “cup” but be unable to identify what a cup is used for.

The Sundberg brothers were on the leading edge of the ABA approach to treating autism, which was based on Skinner’s theories, and have since become internationally recognized authorities on the subject. And while Mark currently resides on the west coast, Carl has chosen to practice in Indiana.

Continue Reading