details of diagnosing autism

Early Intervention is Crucial in Diagnosing Autism

By Holly Sleppy

I’ve always said that fate brought Lisa Demko into my life.

I first met Lisa when I interviewed her for an article about Virtua’s early intervention program (EIP), which provides physical, occupational and speech therapies and other specialized education to children from birth to age 3 who are experiencing delays.

At that time, Lisa told me something that would later change my life, and the life of my son.

I asked Lisa how families were referred to the program — was it through doctors or daycare centers? She said many families heard about it from friends—other parents who just instinctively knew something was not right with their child despite medical evaluations that didn’t reveal anything unusual. After the program receives a call from a parent, the EIP team has a specific time frame in which they must complete an evaluation with the child and family.

This doesn’t seem like a life-altering, compelling fact. But I believe I was meant to do that interview and absorb this seemingly minor detail. This is why…

When my son Evan was 3 ½, he started exhibiting “angry behaviors” at daycare, and the teachers were concerned about him and his interactions with the other students. They gently asked if we would have him evaluated by our pediatrician “just to be sure” he was okay. And we did. And two pediatricians said he was a typical, rambunctious boy.

But I remembered what Lisa said about trusting your parental instincts in that interview a few years earlier, and I called the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, which provides developmental evaluations and special services to children. I relayed what we had learned from his teachers and pediatricians and scheduled an evaluation.

I assure you, this is not a speedy process, because these types of programs are evaluating hundreds of children each year. In the spring, Evan’s behaviors and physical and cognitive skills were evaluated at school. His teachers, my husband and I completed written behavioral assessments. By the end of the summer, we had some information. Not a diagnosis; more of an identification of an issue. Something I’d never heard of in my years in health care. And something that’s hard to explain even today.

Evan had sensory processing disorder.

Here’s the way I explain it…your brain processes all of your senses at the same time—sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. You can see these words, while listening to the hum of the heater in the background, while smelling coffee in the air, while tapping the keyboard and tasting the minty gum you’re chewing. Sounds like a lot of stuff to process, doesn’t it?

In a person with sensory processing disorder, their sensory input gets into a bit of traffic jam, and in any traffic jam, there’s bound be to some road rage. In Evan’s case, he was oversensitive to sound and under sensitive to touch. The soothing sound of ocean waves roared in his ears like a speeding freight train and sent him into screaming, writhing fits. He didn’t close doors or cabinets; he slammed them. He didn’t hug me after work; he sprinted at me at full-speed often toppling me onto my backside.

He also showed some delays in fine and gross motor skills, so we created a plan with the Intermediate Unit that would provide him with occupational therapy and sensory support in the daycare.

We had no idea until the spring of the following year that we were on the path to an autism diagnosis. And the signs were black and white, if only we had known what to look for.  

Updated April 5, 2017