Kids with autism can catch up
Developmental delays can be offset by early intervention and culturally-competent caregivers
By Beth Trevino, M.D.
As a developmental pediatrician, I have built a career around my passion to make a difference in the lives of children, their families and the communities in which they live. I’ve treated countless patients and, although each family is unique, some stories are simply burned into your memory. I’d like to share one of those stories.
I met Brandon when he was just two years old. His life challenges began early. His father died soon after Brandon’s birth, and his mother’s departure was soon to follow. Brandon’s mother left him with his grandma to go to the store, but never came back for him. Grandma was now “stuck” with a child who could not communicate, still used a bottle and was far behind on all of the typical doctor’s appointments most children have by his age.
The most memorable characteristic was Brandon’s behavior. This child was out of control. Brandon couldn’t help but climb on all of the office furniture, open and rifle through each drawer, and grab every piece of medical equipment within his reach. Brandon was wired differently. Rather than being a child eager to please and work for praise, he was a child that no babysitter could stand after the first day. Grandma left her job because she had exhausted every child care option in the book. Soon after, she lost the apartment when she couldn’t make rent. As if this weren’t enough to overcome, I diagnosed him with a fairly common condition – autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It can be a daunting task for families who have children with special needs to access the treatment services and resources needed to help their child succeed. These services can seem out of reach for a grandma like Brandon’s, who only speaks Spanish.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a study that looked at ASD and Latino children. This study, as well as several others, found that Latino children are diagnosed with autism later in life than non-Hispanic children. These delays are likely due to language differences between pediatricians and families. Fortunately for Brandon, he found one of a handful of developmental pediatricians in the country that speaks Spanish. Speaking like a member of the family gives me an advantage by improving my ability to partner with the family to create a plan of care which is understood by the parents, benefits the child and allows the implementation of early developmental intervention services available for all children.
Early intervention is critical
Brandon’s grandmother understood what was best for her grandson. She had dreams of his attending school, interacting with peers and actually enjoying these activities. She listened carefully as I explained the critical period of brain development for children when developmental skills have the potential for catch-up growth. When a developmental or behavioral delay is identified before the age of six, therapeutic interventions can actually influence brain connections and change brain structure. When initiated early, therapies act as medicine. The earlier you start, the easier it is to make developmental gains. Brandon received early intervention services at two years old and, so, was on his way to change his trajectory for life and learning forever.