Early Intervention Is Key For Autism


Jessica Wong-Sumida, executive director of Autism Society of Hawaii. Photo from Wong-Sumida

What do you want for your children? Happiness? Success? Love? Of course we want the best for our kids.

If you’re a parent of a child who has autism, you want all of that and something more: independence.

It seems like such a simple thing, and yet for people with autism it is anything but. Most parents expect that when their children become adults they will be able to take care of themselves.

But according to the Autism Society, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots autism organization, “While a majority of adults with autism can and want to work, over 80 percent in the United States today are denied that opportunity.”

How do we combat this grim statistic?

Jessica Wong-Sumida, executive director of the Autism Society of Hawaii, says we start by identifying autism early, before a child turns 3.

“We combat this by doing universal screening – by screening all our kids,” she explains.

Doing so, she says, gives everyone – parents, the state, medical professionals – a chance to provide services early enough to change the course of that child’s life.

The benefits wouldn’t be limited to children with autism. Wong-Sumida says it would help all children who show developmental delays. For example, she says, early screening can catch a host of other problems: “It can tell us whether your kid is developing appropriately. Are they talking when they should? Are they grasping at things? Do they have reciprocal eye gaze, are they standing up, are they hanging on to things?”

These delays are not always autism-related, but they can impede a child’s performance profoundly if not addressed early enough.

To ensure that the screening and the services are accessible, the Autism Society of Hawaii is supporting Senate Bill 2054 that would require insurance companies to include appropriate behavioral therapies in their coverage.

John Dellera, an Autism Society board member who is tracking the legislation, says it makes sense economically for insurance to cover these interventions rather than relying on appropriations from the state.

“Autism is a lifelong disability and treatment can be very expensive, so the goal is to help these people find employment and live semi-independently or independently, and (ultimately) reduce expense for state.”

Sumida-Wong and Dellera point out that right now it can cost up to $3.2 million for the state to take care of one individual with autism, and the situation is getting worse, not better.

The latest report out from the Centers for Disease Control is staggeringly grim.

The report says the prevalence rate for autism is now 1 in 68 – an increase of more than 30 percent from its 2008 report.

The cost to society and, of course, to individual families could be mitigated to a large extent by identifying and treating the children early.

Wong-Sumida says the research shows early intervention works. She and Dellera agree that, if kids are given intense therapy by qualified people, they develop skills they would otherwise lack. That sets them up for better success in kindergarten, in school and for adulthood, easing the financial and social burdens on their families and, in the long run, on all of us.

And just as important if not more, it gives these special children a shot at something considered out of their reach for far too long. It gives them hope for an independent – or semi-independent – productive life.