A Glimpse of Autism

by paula h. kitzenberg

The word ‘autism’ can elicit feelings of intense anger, sadness, and confusion all at once. The truth is, everyone has heard of autism but very few people really understand this developmental disorder that is our attacking so many of our children. April is National Autism Awareness Month, so it’s a good time to study this important topic.

First, here are the some startling facts about autism. Late in 2009, the Autism Society of America found that one in 91 children is diagnosed with autism. Earlier that same year the statistics were one in 110. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed than girls, at a ratio of 4 to 1. The incidence rates of autism continue to climb at a rate of approximately 17% each year. Despite ongoing research, the cause for this increase or for the disorder itself is unknown.

According to a recent Harvard publication, the average yearly cost of care for a child with autism is $30,000 for medical costs alone. If you consider non-medical costs (such as tutoring or specialized child care) this yearly cost increases to around $40,000 per year. Combining direct medical expenses, direct non-medical expenses, and indirect expenses (from lost productivity), the lifetime cost of autism will be over $3.2 million per child.

The Montana Department of Health and Human Services website outlines the following “red flags” for autism:

Impairment in Social Interaction:

Lack of eye contact

Lack of warm, joyful expressions

Lack of sharing interest or enjoyment

Lack of response to name

Impairment in Communication:

Lack of showing gestures

Lack of verbal communication

Unusual prosody (little variation in pitch, odd intonation, irregular rhythm, unusual voice quality)

Repetitive Behaviors & Restricted Interests:

Repetitive movements with objects

Repetitive movements or posturing of body, arms, hands, or fingers

As an occupational therapist, I often become involved in these children’s lives due to these “repetitive” behaviors. These repetitive and unusual behaviors are often due to impaired sensory processing. Research is revealing that children with autism experience sensory input differently and more dramatically than other children. Each child is unique in their sensory experiences, but they may be distracted by noises or touch that other children would never notice. They often crave movement or firm pressure. This might explain their need to rock or spin or their preference for “rough and tumble” play. Hand-flapping behaviors are often associated with the need for intense visual input. Children with autism often enjoy lining up their toys, watching spinning toys, or fixating on puzzles- these are also considered visual needs for the child.

Occupational therapists address these sensory processing impairments utilizing a special therapy intervention called sensory integration. Only a few therapists in our state are certified in sensory integration (i.e. SIPT). These therapists offer sensory-enriched therapy environments where the child can experience their preferred sensory play and be challenged to expand their sensory repertoire. The goal of sensory integration therapy is to improve the child’s responses to sensory input and to decrease unwanted behaviors associated with the impaired sensory processing. Enhanced sensory responses also increase the child’s ability to learn and to engage in his/her environment.

Sensory integration is just one therapy option for children who have been diagnosed with autism. In Billings, MSU-B is developing an applied behavioral analysis program (ABA) which has strong evidence based roots in the treatment of autism. Easter Seals-Goodwill provides the PLAY project®. PLAY stands for Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters and is a home-based parent training intervention for children and their families. PLAY is based on the “hidden” social milestones that children with autism often miss. Both video and written feedback is used to instruct the parents to help their children develop these important social skills. There are many other treatment options available, as well.

Autism currently affects 1.5 million children in America. This month, let’s spend some time considering the impact that this disorder is having on our schools, our community, our neighborhoods, and our nation. If we ponder long and hard enough, chances are, you already know someone who is struggling with this devastating neurological disorder. SFM

The following are website links with valuable information pertaining to autism:






Paula H. Kitzenberg is the director of Pediatric Therapy Services at Easter Seals-Goodwill in Billings. She is certified in sensory integration (SIPT). For more information about the autism services provided by Easter Seals-Goodwill, please call 252-9600 or contact Paula at paulak@esgw.org.