Therapy improves autism effects in children
Rachel Ottley, Greenhouse Pediatric Therapy occupational therapist, stands in the sensory gym at Greenhouse in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The room is one of four used to help stimulate children with developmental disorders such as autism and teach them how to socially interact and communicate. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Rice falls through a sensory tool at Greenhouse Pediatric Therapy in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. Sensory tools and techniques are used at Greenhouse to help improve communication and interaction among children with developmental disorders. LINDSEY BARK/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Cherokee Nation citizen Nathan Hicks holds his son, Braden, while his daughter, Lilly, sits between him and his wife, Elizabeth. Lilly was diagnosed with autism when she was 18 months old. However, thanks to therapy, she attends a regular third grade class and is not in any therapy. COURTESY
BROKEN ARROW – Autism is a neural developmental disorder identified by social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication challenges. In the United States one child in 68 is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. In Oklahoma that rate increases to one in 52 children.
Symptoms are more noticeable in children as young as 18 months. “You can see it through sensory issues and social communication issues and some motor stuff as well, how kids use their bodies,” Rachel Ottley, Greenhouse Pediatric Therapy occupational therapist, said.
Prime ages for diagnoses are between 2 and 3 years old. Signs include difficulty sleeping, picky eating, being held and the types of food eaten. Babies with autism display no social interaction such as smiling at someone and can get extremely focused on an object or attached to things like a blanket, toy or cup.
Cherokee Nation citizen Nathan Hicks said his daughter, Lilly, was diagnosed with autism at nearly 2 years. He said when she was 1 she didn’t meet certain milestones, and symptoms became more noticeable. At 18 months, Nathan and his wife told their pediatrician that Lilly was different. A psychiatrist confirmed Lilly’s diagnosis after several visits.
Nathan said one indicator was she wasn’t communicating the way an 18-month-old should. Rather she stared at the ground or floor making repetitive noises. “One of the markers that she wasn’t doing was she wouldn’t cross midline. By that, if something was sitting off to the right, she would use her right hand but she wouldn’t reach over with her left hand to get it. It was very divisional. Right hand got the right side things, left hand got the left side things.”
He said Lilly was attached to one pair of shoes and black stretchy pants. Noises also affected her. A vacuum cleaner whirring or static-type noises soothed her, while ambulance or fire truck sirens upset her.
Ottley said other indicators include when the touch sensory system is affected, meaning a child may not like to be hugged, held, bathed or have his/her skin rubbed, while others love to be held tight and bounced around.
Nathan said he and wife also worked through digestive issues with Lilly after noticing she had a hard time digesting food containing gluten and casein proteins.
“A lot of autistic people, they have digestive issues. There’s a nerve that runs from your stomach to the brain that reacts differently in a lot of people with autism, and they’re sensitive to a lot of different kinds of food. Gluten intolerance is pretty common and the casein is like a man-made glue that they put in a lot of milk products to keep them together,” he said.
He said once Lilly’s diet became gluten- and casein-free, she became less irritable.
Lilly is diagnosed on the spectrum as high functioning. Meaning though she has autistic symptoms, she still functions well in every day life.
“The spectrum means that some people appear more severely impacted than others. But it’s a little bit of a misnomer really because you can be quite severely affected by autism but still have a job and a marriage and a relationship and kids and all those things and still be really quite autistic,” Ottley said.
There is no known cause for autism. Ottley said it is a mystery, though there is a genetic component. Most likely the genetic contributions of the mother and father could present autism in the child. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed, meaning girls present differently and are often diagnosed later. Ottley said race or ethnicity is not a factor as it’s “all across the board,” and there are under-diagnosed children in minority groups.
Nathan said after Lilly’s diagnosis, she began occupational and speech therapy. The therapists she saw used the DIRFloortime model, which stands for Development, Individual Differences and Relationships. It’s designed to create interaction between the child and those around them.
“You get down on their level, literally on the floor. You see whatever sparks their interest. You make that your world. You see what you can make up that interesting about it to get them to go back and forth with you,” Nathan said. “A lot of it was just kind of some tough love, too.”
For example, if Lilly sat on a swing, Nathan would hold it until she said go. It taught her to say words to communicate. Other techniques like board games or throwing a piece of paper back and forth were used to stimulate interaction.
Ottley, who worked with Lilly, said as a therapist she looks at the child’s daily life from playing, sleeping, eating and getting dressed to determine how to make those tasks easier. “If we could make stuff like that easier, then the family gets to love each other more and be with each more instead of just managing behavior and trying to figure how to keep this kid calm.”
Using the DIRFloortime model takes into account the individual differences in children in terms of speech, language, their sensory system and what they enjoy most. Ottley said they build a child’s development around those things.
Lilly endured occupational therapy until first grade and speech therapy until second grade. Now, at age 9, she attends a regular third grade class and is not in any therapy. Nathan said he is thankful for the therapists who helped his daughter.
“You look at life a little differently when you’re living through it,” he said.