Changes in criteria could limit autism treatment

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by JANET ST. JAMES / WFAA

khou.com

Posted on May 17, 2012 at 8:17 AM

NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas — Nine-year-old Alex Arrington considers himself a Lego master.

This third-grader is great, in fact, with just about any methodical subject.

"Science, but I'm best at math," Alex said. "I like fractions."

Socially, it's a different story.

"He hasn't been invited to many birthday parties or anything like that," admits his mother, Debbie Arrington. "He's better now, but he was so aggressive in the earlier years in school. And I think the kids got to where they were afraid of him. It's very sad for Alex, and sad that the other kids don't understand him."

What many people don't understand is that Alex has Asperger's, a disorder on the autism spectrum that particularly affects social interaction.

Twice a week — at school and at home — Alex gets therapy to better learn social skills. Right now, a child can show any six on a list of behaviors to be labeled "autistic" and recieve services.

Under changes being considered by the American Psychological Association, there would have to be specific deficits in social interaction and at least two repetitive behaviors to qualify.

If the criteria for autism disorders is narrowed, Alex may no longer qualify for this help, because he is too smart, and doesn't exhibit repetitive behaviors.

His speech pathologist, Courtney Mullaney, believes that would be a grave error — not just for Alex, but for society.

"He is so desperate to have a friend, that he would engage in behavior that could end him in places that he doesn't need to be or in an alternative school," Mullaney said. "So the hope is with good therapy, we're giving him the tools to work through those things."

Mullaney provides therapy in Alex's home, where the surroundings are familiar and non-threatening.

Alex admits that while therapy can be difficult, he sees a difference in himself as a result.

"In the past, I would kick, hit, and bite when I didn't get what I wanted," he said.

Now, when he gets angry, Alex said he thinks of something that makes him happy — like Legos.

About one-third of all people with autism have no paid job experience, college, or technical school seven years after graduating high school, according to a study printed in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Without the current intervention, the Arringtons fear that Alex could add to that statistic, instead of building on the skills he's learning now to become a productive adult.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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