April is Autism Awareness Month, placing recent strides in research and treatment in the spotlight.
But no matter the gains in the science of autism, some parents say they're just trying to make it through the grocery store checkout line. Or cope with meltdowns over itchy clothes. Or keep their child from running off in a parking lot.
About one in 88 kids has some form of autism, from moderate to severe, the Centers for Disease Control announced in March. Kids who have autistic tendencies may have impairments in social interaction and communication, and may exhibit repetitive behaviors among other symptoms.
After 16 years of studying autism, one Harvard researcher recently concluded that "autism is a giant pile-up of problems." And some of those problems may be fixable.
The disorder is not hard-wired into a child's genes, says Dr. Martha Herbert, author of "The Autism Revolution: Whole-Body Strategies for Making Life All It Can Be" (Ballantine Books, 2012). So instead of focusing on what's wrong, think about what can be changed.
Take the whole health of the child into account, she suggests, citing these areas that parents can work on:
n Healthy diet: It's important to provide foods that are rich in nutrients, including fruits and vegetables from every color of the rainbow.
n Low toxins: Reduce environmental exposure to chemicals and toxins as much as possible. Look at everything under your sink and in your bathroom and garage, and ask whether you can get the job done with fewer chemicals.
n Overall health: Don't dismiss your child's physical, non-behavioral symptoms such as diarrhea, anxiety, sensory overload, sleeplessness, seizures or frequent ear infections.
n Broad interests: Even if your child is not able to express himself, expand his world to give him the opportunity to develop new interests.
Herbert's book includes success stories and simple tips, such as:
n Don't rush. Take more time to do fewer things.
n Provide structure and spell out routines with pictures, stories and other reinforcement.
n Take frequent breaks and leave time for relaxation.
n Anticipate your child's physical needs, such as bathroom and eating breaks.
n Narrate what you're doing and why throughout the day.
It's also helpful to give instructions in a song or chant, such as adapting "London Bridge," says Barbara Sher, author of "Early Intervention Games" (Jossey-Bass, 2009). Sher, a teacher and occupational therapist, includes a variety of inexpensive ideas in her book to use at home or in the classroom:
n Give rides on a blanket or in a cardboard box.
n Form a tunnel with your legs and let your child climb through.
n Set up an obstacle course and let the child go under, around and between different surfaces.
For children who are overly sensitive to touch, Sher suggests giving them fine-motor activities that provide a chance to play with different textures. If your child cannot stand the touch at first, let him use gloves or a stick.
n Finger-painting with pudding and whipped topping.
n Tracing in flour, sugar or sand.
n Filling and dumping a container of rice or dried beans.
n Using felt-tip markers to draw on a tile, then wipe it off and start over.
Current American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines call for screening all toddlers for autism at 18 months and 24 months. However, work by autism researcher Karen Pierce, Ph.D., suggests that the screening questionnaire can be useful even at a baby's one-year checkup. Discuss screening options with your child's pediatrician to find the right plan for your family.
Some caregivers of kids with autism use apps to track behaviors and to show children "social stories" about common activities like grocery shopping. A starting point, especially for parents of children who are visual learners, is touchautism.com.
Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 704-236-9510.