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.

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Beyond Beethoven

Performing arts organizations seek the next generation of patrons

By Patricia Pickett

In the last two decades, Hamilton County’s quality of life quotient has risen considerably as leisure activities like parks, shopping and entertainment have burgeoned at a remarkable rate. Klipsch Music Center rose from the cornfields like a beacon to touring musicians as “Deer Creek” in 1989; with much fanfare and some controversy, The Center for the Performing Arts -- including the palatial Palladium -- opened in 2011.

These venues filled the void for Hamilton County residents seeking national touring acts and high-caliber entertainment in close proximity to their homes.

But then comes the tenuous job of cultivating audiences and filling the seats. It’s the business of the arts.

Seeking Millenials

 According to local arts leaders, it’s a bit of a balancing act: While nurturing the patrons who regularly purchase season tickets and may even be donors, there’s the simultaneous challenge of attracting new audiences, including millennials. Add to the mix the national trend of the traditional “season subscription” lessening in popularity – with so many choices, audiences don’t want to commit to an entire season.

Much like their business counterparts, arts organizations are constantly on the hunt for customers. According to Mark Truett, vice president of marketing and communications for The Center for the Performing Arts, it really comes down to programming followed by reaching potential ticket buyers.

“It’s about making sure we’re programming relevant content,” said Truett, who joined The Center earlier this year. “We have our core constituency of ticket buyers and want to provide what they are looking for and meeting our mission. But there’s no doubt that the millennials are our next-generation audience, and we need to connect with them as well.”

According to a 2016 survey of 25 arts organizations throughout the country conducted by the Wallace Foundation, there are four success factors in growing a millennial audience.

  • Dispel their perceptions of ticket prices which they believe are much more expensive than they are in reality
  • Create experiences that challenge them emotionally and intellectually, encourage self-discovery, and offer them a release from the stresses of everyday life.
  • Create social experiences.
  • Create “buzz worthy” experiences they can share with friends via social media

Yoga

Janna Hymes

As the newly appointed Music Director and Maestro of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra (CSO), Janna Hymes is familiar with these trends. A guest conductor for orchestras throughout the country as well as serving as music director for the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra (WSO), she points to a performance of Star Trek music that orchestra will be performing this season. “A friend’s adult son came up to me and was so excited … we’re doing it four times, and he’s coming to two shows,” she said.

In another programming twist, when Williamsburg audiences were treated to violinist Elena Urioste, the WSO tapped into her “Intermission” yoga program and hosted a yoga class the Friday evening before the concert. 

“It just created an amazing vibe with not just the musicians, but the community as a whole,” said Hymes. “It underscores what I believe about performing arts. It is an integral part of the community. The arts give the community a heartbeat, provide economic growth and bring in fascinating people. That’s a much bigger story than, ‘Hey did you hear Beethoven on Saturday?’”

As Hymes begins her tenure with the CSO, she says her challenge will be discovering what makes Carmel and the surrounding community tick and programming accordingly. “One thing I know is that Carmel has one of the most beautiful halls I’ve ever seen,” she said. “We’ve been able to create a palpable ‘buzz’ in Williamsburg, and I know we can do the same in Carmel.”

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