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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Autism as a Spectrum

I still owe the blogosphere a Halloween post, but, before my mind becomes more addled than it already is, I just wanted to get some thoughts down on virtual paper. (Yes, I am posting at 4am again. We can attribute this to Lea's teething which proceeds full force and her mixed-up crazy lack of schedule).

On Tuesday, the New York Times published an interesting article entitled, "A Powerful Diagnosis; A Vanishing Identity" which I found very thought-provoking, particularly in light of some of my recent observations about Hallie and her development. The gist of the article is that the working group that is evaluating autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders for the upcoming revision of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)-V have found that there is no clear-cut clinical distinction between those who are diagnosed with mild (or high functioning) autism, PDD-NOS, and Asperger's Syndrome. They've also noticed that diagnoses morph over time; lots of kids, for example, start out with the PDD-NOS label during the toddler and preschool years but end up in the High Functioning Autism or Asperger's categories once they are in third grade or so and it becomes clear to observers what their functional level in terms of capacity to do school work, form relationships, use social and pragmatic language etc really is. So, instead of using these diagnostic terms, the DSM working group has chosen to focus on the core neurodevelopmental differences that mark everyone on the spectrum, such as problems with joint attention and social engagement and deficits in the area of communication/use of social and pragmatic language, and also give some space to the other health problems that those on the ASD also have, such as sensory issues, anxiety and attentional disorders, GI problems, food allergies, and seizure activity.

This is not a bad idea, but I can totally see how it might be controversial: Asperger's Syndrome has constituted a core identity position for lots of people in our culture and you can't just strip it away and tell Aspies that their identity no longer exists. And I think this change would lead a lot of people not to have their kids evaluated because, in our society, having a diagnosis of PDD-NOS or Asperger's Syndrome seems a whole lot less scary and is probably a great deal less stigmatizing than a diagnosis of Autism. (It's a whole heck of a lot better to be lumped in with Temple Grandin and, presumptively, Thomas Alva Edison or Albert Einstein than it is to be deemed to resemble Dustin Hoffman's character in Rain Man).

I think these are very valid points (heck, I study identity for my 'real' job when I am not raising the kids and taking charge of Hallie's complicated medical/therapeutic/and now insurance issues). But I don't really want to get into all of this.

What I do want to talk about is Hallie and how getting to know her and the issues that she confronts on a daily basis suggests to me that the working group on autism's perspective seems to be on target. In other words, as I watch Hallie grow and become more attuned to her neuroatypical (is that even a word? it should be) development, autism begins to look more and more like a spectrum and those sub-categories like PDD-NOS and Asperger's seem to hold a whole lot less water. Indeed, terms like "high functioning" or "PDD-NOS" or "Asperger's" may lead observers/teachers/parents to take the diagnosis a whole lot less seriously than is warranted; provide fewer services to the child who is, after all, "high functioning"; and lead to a romanticization of a label that may not be all that helpful in the end to the kid who is having trouble functioning in the world in which s/he lives.

1. Does language/being verbal matter?

Sure it does. I think we'd be terribly distraught were Hallie not yet speaking. Indeed, we don't have too far to reach into the past to summon up memories of the panic that we felt before Hallie did acquire speech. Hallie was a very late talker who did no babbling whatsoever (just some vowel sounds and even those were far and few between) and who went through over a year of speech therapy before language emerged, finally, some time around age 2. I don't think I spent a single day without googling terms like "apraxia", "late talker", etc back then. I read everything that I could; we tried a variety of biomedical and dietary interventions (Omega 3-6-9s; gluten-free/casein-free diets; magnesium); we invested lots of money in purchasing materials to teach Hallie (and us) American Sign Language (this was a great investment, by the way); and we took Hallie from specialist to specialist, went through numerous speech evaluations, and tried a whole lot of different therapeutic tactics. None of these produced speech, really, until we began to address Hallie's sensory needs, but more on those later.

Even once Hallie did begin to talk, her language remained sparse up until this past winter (about age 2.75) when it took off in terms of the number of words that she spoke. These days, however, she talks A LOT. She is constantly babbling, making demands on us, and, most prevalently, repeating sentences or parts thereof in what is classically known as echolalia (most of her echolalia is immediate--she'll repeat something she sees on TV or that we say to her, but some of it is becoming delayed--she'll repeat relatively short scripts that she has memorized).

But the issue here is not that she has a problem speaking--even though her little voice is raspy due to vocal cord paralysis, she can talk. The question is: can she communicate? And that's teh core autism issue that is our biggest problem, I think (though this problem clearly goes hand in hand with all the rest of the stuff that constitutes the spectrum). Hallie has very little pragmatic language. The way in which she communicates tends to be stereotyped (she learns a script like "Hi, X" or "Bye, X, See you Later!" or "Are you OK? I'm Alright" that is accompanied by fake falling) and, while she tends to use these in appropriate situations, she varies very little from the script. She doesn't have the capacity to communicate in a regular back-and-forth conversational manner with peers or adults. She can't answer questions easily, even when given a choice; has trouble reading body language and often responds to it inappropriately (so she might, for example, laugh when her sister is crying or we are angry with her); finds abstract concepts like emotions very hard to grasp and prefers to label concrete objects for us; probably has a lot of problems following narratives, especially when listening to them being read aloud when they are not accompanied by visual stimuli, even though she understands the individual words of which these narratives are composed; etc. All of this makes it hard for her to organize her own thoughts and get her own point across and, consequently, even when she does have something to say, she might stammer to get it out.

Now, that doesn't mean that we don't have a lot to work with where Hallie's linguistic potential is concerned. She has a fantastic vocabulary; is enamored of words, letters, and books; has a phenomenal memory particularly for visual stuff; and is a quick study. Oddly enough, the kind of echolalia that she manifests is, in itself a good sign. As Hallie talks more and more, she seems to be modifying her echolalia so that, while it is still scripted, she is using those scripts pretty appropriately and in a way that is individualized to the circumstances. It's kind of like she tests out these scripts by echoing them back to the TV or us and then practices them for days until she feels confident enough to use them publicly. Thus, we often here things from Hallie a good two weeks to a month before she uses similar constructions at preschool. Hallie is lacking in the department of self-confidence (we are convinced that she knows that she is different from her peers) and has an excessive degree of anxiety, particularly around social communication) and practicing her scripts a lot appears to allay some of these problems. This post from one of the autism blogs that I read sums up this phenomenon nicely.

As Hallie's language has begun to explode, it's also become abundantly clear to me that she uses the vast majority of her words and sentences to label things in admittedly more sophisticated ways ("It's a big orange tiger. Tiger says 'roar'!") or make demands on us ("I want a bigger circle icey!"). It's great that she's telling us stuff and expressing her needs, but one thing that is missing from Hallie's speech is an emotional component. Her language, like that of most kids on the spectrum who can speak/sign is imperative rather than declarative. Declarative language, as the mom who wrote this post put it, is aimed at transmitting feeling and ideas and not designed to get some sort of response. So, for example, when one says "What a beautiful day it is today. It's so warm and sunny outside and feels just like spring," one is using declarative language. It's aim is to share your perceptions with the people around you and, in so doing, make an emotional connection with them. Much of our daily conversation with friends is in the declarative form. In contrast, it's hard to form a nice human bond if all you are doing is barking orders at them ("Give me a piece of paper! I want a red crayon, please! Now I want the blocks!" aren't really conversation starters.)

The problem is: how does a parent/caregiver/teacher help a kid for whom 9o% of speech aimed at others (as opposed to scripted repeated phrases) get to the point where she expresses her observations of the universe in a way that gets a conversation and, with it a human bond, going? The one thing that others have tried that that we are working on now with Hallie is getting her to express her feelings. We hope that by modeling and using emotive language with her, where we talk about how we are feeling and why we are feeling this way, we can help her make connections between what she is feeling and why she is feeling that way (because she does feel; she just doesn't know how to express and communicate these feelings and that's part of what frustrates her). A simple case in point: yesterday in the bathtub, Hallie asked me to spray some cherry-scented (ugh!) Elmo shaving cream on the side of the tub. I asked her 'why do you want me to do this?' which is not a question she could answer (she has yet to acquire the almighty "why?" that is the bane of all preschoolers' parents' existence and would bring joy to my own ears.) Since I knew she could not answer this question, I helped provide the answer to her: "because you like it! It makes you happy!" Hallie understands 'like' and 'dislike' on a visceral level but has not expressed liking or disliking anything or anyone in a linguistic form. Likewise, she can identify a happy face (it has a smile on it) and even make one on demand, but she doesn't quite link the feeling that she has of joy or satisfaction (and I know that she feels joy; just watch her when she swings or bounces and you know she is full of glee) with the abstract word "happy." But concretizing this for her---linking the joy of playing in the shaving cream with the concept 'happy' and helping her realize that the things she likes make her feel happy and then providing her with a script helped. We did this exercise several times in the tub with the shaving cream (kind of like an ABA light exercise, in my mind) and then, later on in the evening, we did some more stuff that she liked and made her happy and substituted the new activity for the shaving cream and she repeated her new script, "I want X...because it makes me happy!" This morning, it was clear that she had internalized the lesson, at least to some degree, because she began to generalize this a bit further. I did the same thing with the concept 'scary': we visited the dentist yesterday, and Hallie always finds this scary but has never had the word for this. We talked about the appointment in advance, while we were there, and after we got home. For the first time ever, Hallie expressed to me that she was scared (she actually said "I little scared" when I asked her how the dentist made me feel); then again, this morning, she told me that "big animals are scary!" Now, among the preschool set, saying something like "big animals are scary" really could be the beginning of a very fun conversation.

So there is clearly hope there when it comes to the notion of pragmatic language acquisition but the point that I'd like to underscore is that none of this comes naturally to Hallie, who by all accounts has above-average intelligence and is likely going to end up as an Asperger's kid if the DSM-V doesn't change its approach to diagnosing ASD. It's the inability or impaired ability to use pragmatic language that seems to me to be a defining characteristic of the spectrum. Some have it worse than others, to be sure, but this is one of those things that separates folks on the spectrum from their neurotypical peers and, no matter how much ABA and Floortime and other therapies these kids get, pragmatic language on some level remains a struggle for them.

Why this is important should be fairly obvious: it's hard to form relationships with people if you cannot engage in meaningful spontaneous conversation with them; if you cannot understand their body language and cues; and if you have trouble with emotions. And that brings me to the second issue that seems to affect people on the spectrum, pretty much across the board:

2. Joint Engagement.

Again, there's a spectrum here. Some folks with autism demonstrate little to no capacity for this; others are fairly well engaged with the people in their universe but their engagement seems a bit quirky or eccentric. I'd guess that Hallie falls somewhere in the middle. Her eye contact sucks. There's no way around that. She would prefer to avert her gaze than to look you in the eye and I suspect that looking people in the eye is typically rather painful -- at least emotionally -- for Hallie because visual stimuli are so potent and so distracting to her and because she has a lot of problems organizing her sensory system. The times when she is best able to make and sustain eye contact is when she is engaged in sensory-regulating activities (like bouncing; having pillows and other soft objects thrown on her; being tossed up in the air; jumping; or playing music etc). This is because her sensory system is so out of whack and she requires a ton of proprioceptive and vestibular input to know where her body is in the universe and get herself back into equilibrium. So, if you give her this input, you can achieve joint attention and engagement (of which eye contact is a manifestation). Once you have that, you can build on the engagement to reach new levels of emotional interaction and give-and-take kinds of communication (be it verbal or gestural). If those new activities that are more sophisticated get to be too much for Hallie, she shuts down because she is overwhelmed and you need to retreat to simpler sensory-regulating activities (like tossing pillows or balls at her) to help her re-regulate herself. And sometimes those work great and other times, she is so overwhelmed that she needs to retreat for a bit before she can reengage with the people in her universe. Getting a handle on all of this is one of the most important things that we have learned from Floortime/DIR therapy. And, hopefully, over time, Hallie will learn to seek out less dramatic means of self-regulation and will demonstrate more emotional and developmental competence that will make it possible for her to stay engaged longer and in more sophisticated ways (and this will help build the blocks to logical thinking, effective executive motor planning, and the like).

The extent of Hallie's problems with joint attention/engagement really only became clear to us once Lea came into her own as a little person. Watching Lea engage with us and her universe has been a real eye-opener. For one, Lea prefers people to objects/toys. She uses her social smile and excellent eye contact to achieve a bond with me when I walk into the room (and she seems to know immediately that I'm there) and begins to flirt. She'll then do some sort of motor activity--bang some toys together, bang on a table--and anticipate or even demand that we mimic her action. This will then lead to a whole stream of 'circles of communication' that are accompanied by sustained eye contact, lots of smiling, and usually some noises/babbling. It's like a whole baby conversation and is hugely fulfilling. We didn't really have any of this with Hallie and, like pragmatic language, eye contact and joint attention did not naturally enter into Hallie's repertoire. She always preferred toys to people and still does. The inanimate world is the world she enjoys labeling and showing us. Indeed, there's a relationship between her lack of pragmatic language (her tendency to label rather than communicate) and her lack of joint attention.

Some day this labeling may morph into monologues on her favorite subjects (which is very indicative of those diagnosed with Asperger's) but regardless of whether she ever achieves the kind of verbal fluency that Aspies usually have, the core problem remains the same.

3. Sensory Dysfunction's place in the spectrum's trifecta.

A while back I wrote a long post on sensory integration disorder, so I am not going to repeat all of it here again. But the crux of the matter is that people on the spectrum seem to be out of kilter, each in his or her own way, where sensory issues are concerned. They either are over-responsive and find sensations--like noises, tastes, smells--so overwhelming that they cannot function in the presence of them; under-responsive ('ho-hum') about everything and need way more sensory information before they can respond to their environment; or some mix of the two.

That's what Hallie is like---she hears and sees so much and so well but has trouble hierarchizing oral data to glean from it the pertinent information that she needs to act; that's why she gets so distracted so easily. Visual cues, when clear and forceful enough (like the TV she loves and I have grown to hate, but also like the written word that I cannot help but love), provide much more organizing data to her and allow her to learn better. That's why we're incorporating a visual schedule into her repertoire that will allow her to anticipate the activities that await her during the school day and help her organize her life around them.

She obviously needs much more proprioceptive input in order to pay attention and function: if her feet don't touch the floor while sitting in a chair, she fidgets and needs to move around; a foot stool definitely helps to sit still longer. Her OT at school has also brought in a couple of different weighted vests to see if they help her pay attention to what's going on in the classroom during story time and circle time. And it's pretty obvious to me that, as we transition to a more formal school setting that requires her to sit at a desk and perform fairly sophisticated activities, she will require various adaptations and accommodations to her environment. We just don't quite know what these are right now.

And Hallie, obviously, also has her aversions. Most food falls under this category for her, but so does having messy hands (she will do some messy activities for short periods of time, but once she realizes that her hands are messy or greasy or whatever, she demands a wipe or needs to wash up), having her hair washed, and stuff of that nature.

Occupational therapy also really helps kids with sensory issues (regardless of whether they are on the spectrum), so we're looking forward to beginning this privately again some time this winter. What we do in OT helps us come up with ideas about what we can do differently at home and at school.

We all have our sensory likes and dislikes and most of us fidget and squirm to some extent when forced to sit for long periods of time at a desk. Some of us do better at auditory learning (that would be me) and some of us are much more effective visual learners (that would be Sharon). But the key issue is that us neurotypical types tend to self-regulate pretty well. We often do this without thinking about it: we might chew the back of a pen or a piece of gum; get up and take a brief walk or grab a glass of cold water so that we can return to our task and pay attention to it; or do less socially acceptable but still fairly normal things like bite our nails or twirl our hair. But the key issue here is that none of this sensory regulation comes naturally to Hallie. Like pragmatic language and joint engagement, this is all stuff we have to learn about her and help her learn and apply to herself. And, again, unlike her neurotypical counterparts, when Hallie's sensory system is out of whack, she will shut down (sometimes for extended periods of time, like days; she did this for a few days this week). Other kids will demonstrate their disregulation in more disruptive manners like extended tantrums. But, regardless, folks on the spectrum have a much harder time getting things back together after they have sensorily fallen apart than those who aren't on the spectrum do.

So, in the end, I am fairly certain that the new spectrum approach that's being bandied about where diagnosing autism is concerned makes more sense to me than the old three-or-four-distinct-disorders approach. To be sure, the degree of impairment matters and those who sit on the higher-functioning (for lack of a better term) end of the spectrum most likely do have an improved chance for a better outcome, especially if they are getting the proper kinds of services and treatment, than their lower-functioning peers. But regardless of whether one is high functioning or low functioning, anyone on the spectrum is going to have a whole lot of challenges where these three sorts of issues are concerned and really needs services/accommodations to help them reach their fullest potential. And maybe, just maybe, revising the DSM will help get more kids the help they need.

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