If you watched this
year's Emmy Awards show,
you might have noticed the blue puzzle piece that host Conan O'Brien
was wearing as a lapel pin.
He wore it to raise awareness of autism, which is a rapidly growing
concern across the United States as well as on the North Shore where
local service providers have been out front in offering treatment.
According to the Autism Society of America, "Autism is a complex developmental
disability that typically appears during the first three years of life
and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal
functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social
interaction and communication skills."
Parents of children diagnosed with autism often struggle to feel like
a real family and may hesitate to pursue outside activities.
For instance, Doug Flutie Jr., son of football star Doug Flutie and
his wife, Laurie, was diagnosed with autism at age three.
Lisa Borgess, now executive director of the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation
for Autism, recounts how the Fluties began to discover what was possible
for their son from AccesSportAmerica, a national nonprofit based in
Acton, Mass., dedicated to higher function and fitness for disabled
children and adults through high-challenge sports.
"They were unsure if he could participate. In a matter of minutes
Dougie was on a windsurfer! I'll never forget the smile that was on
Dougie's face. That opened their eyes to the possibilities. Now they
can do things as a family."
Dougie's world continued to expand with therapeutic riding of horses
at Andover's Ironstone Farm. Now he's 15, and his parents are making
plans for him to experience skiing.
Speculation rages about the potential causes of autism and the seemingly
rapid climb in diagnosed cases. According to a 2004 study by the National
Health, 1 in 166 American children is diagnosed with autism. The U.S
Department of Education's report to Congress on people with disabilities
(1999) illustrated that during the 1990s, the number of people reported
diagnosed with a recognizable disability increased by 16 percent, while
autism diagnoses increased by a staggering 172 percent. Most believe
better diagnostic criteria, increased reporting by physicians,and heightened
awareness by parents and schools have contributed significantly to the
Peter Raffalli, M.D., F.A.P., an attending physician in child neurology
at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor at Harvard Medical
School, explains that the single term "autism" is being replaced
by several new descriptive terms reflecting more specific clinical observations.
This new terminology helps both parents and practitioners to understand
the condition and obtain the best care.
"Now the emphasis has been to pick up on it earlier," says Dr. Raffalli.
Even though it's difficult to diagnose autism in children less than
a year old, "we still begin to look at eye contact in infants,"
he says. "I examine peer interaction, receptive language, unusual
habits, motor mannerisms, or unusual preoccupations that may exclude
Dr. Raffalli believes that applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a crucial
part of any treatment plan. He also recommends parents try therapeutic
horseback riding, which offers many of the benefits of traditional occupational
and physical therapies and sensory integration training with the fun
ABA is the cornerstone of the programs that Melmark New England, a private,
not-for-profit organization, will be offering starting this month at
its new River Road facility in Andover.
Rita Gardner, executive director at Melmark, explains, "So far the
North Shore's rise in children diagnosed with autism is consistent
with the national average.... Working with the public school districts
demonstrated an overwhelming need for these services."
As awareness about autism grows and the number of diagnosed cases continues
to climb, families, school systems, and communities are reaching out
One place they've been turning to is the therapeutic riding program
at Ironstone Farm, at 450 Lowell Street in Andover, which began in 1983
and serves 450 individuals weekly with 32 professional staff, 33 horses
and over 150 volunteers. "Therapeutic riding helps the children focus
and allows them to follow directions," says Deedee O'Brien, executive
director at Ironstone. "The riders are calmed by the movement of the
horse; it helps them function in an orderly manner."
Here are some useful
resources for additional information on autism:
Autism Society of America www.autism-society.org
Center for the Study of Autism www.autism.org
Melmark New England www.melmarkne.org
Ironstone Farm www.challengeunlimited.org
Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation www.dougflutiejrfoundation.org
Autism Speaks www.autismspeaks.org