Hope for the Future
The gold standard for treatment of autism is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which works by rewarding children for appropriate behavior, such as playing with other children or requesting a specific object, explains Melissa Nishawala, MD, clinical director of Autism Spectrum Disorders Service at New York University Medical Center. Usually, tasks are broken down into short, simple steps; when the task is completed, a reward (such as a treat or praise) is offered to reinforce the behavior. Often, these therapies involve cooperative play with other children. Another exercise frequently used in conjunction with ABA is Floor Time, where a therapist or parents play with a child in a way that helps him connect emotionally and engage in back-and-forth communication, first with gestures and expressions, then by actions and words.
Unfortunately, all these therapies come with a staggering price. While some parents are lucky enough to find that their health insurance covers many of these therapies, or they're financially able to cover it themselves, cost can still be a major issue.
A Small Miracle
Ultimately, however, parents say that as devastating as the diagnosis of autism seems initially, empowerment and hope come with treatment. "When Lennon was diagnosed, his doctors weren't sure if he would ever be able to talk," recalls Gunn-Burghart. "Two months later, his therapist was at our house, working with him in the playroom, when she suddenly screamed, 'Sharon, get in here!' I ran into the room to see my son pointing at a play tent and saying 'house, house.' For the first time in his life, he knew what he was saying. I started to cry. I couldn't believe it. Every day, I see my son making progress, whether it's speaking a full sentence or expressing the emotional sensitivity to run up and hug his twin Frannie when she falls and skins her knee. To me, that's nothing short of miraculous."