Blog #217~ DS-ASD: Why the Autism Label Matters?
Over the years I’ve read countless stories of parents struggling to get an autism evaluation and diagnosis for their child who has Down syndrome. IEP (Individual Education Plan) teams often tell parents that, there is no need to get an autism label, because they already have a primary diagnosis of Down syndrome that they can work with. A doctor may dismiss the idea because the child makes good eye contact, and is highly social. This is my story as well with my son, Nick who is 24 years old and has a dual diagnosis of DS-ASD. So, why does the autism label matter?
The book “When Down Syndrome and Autism Intersect, A Guide to DS-ASD Parents and Professionals” by Margaret Froehlke, and Robin Zaborek, states that:
“It’s only in the past 10 to 20 years that we’ve learned that up to 18 percent of persons with Down syndrome will also have autism or ASD (autism spectrum disorder). This is information that most healthcare professionals are not aware of and underscores the importance of this reference guide.”
Getting the secondary diagnosis of autism for an individual with Down syndrome will open up new doors for services to address the unique needs associated with DS-ASD. For a parent, it validates what they have suspected for quite some time, and allows them to move forward to get services and support for their child. Honestly, I was sad at first to receive the news of an autism diagnosis. But eventually, I realized that this label explained the speech deficits, complex sensory, stimming and violent behaviors that Nick was exhibiting. I rolled up my sleeves and sought help from the school IEP team and support groups to figure out how to help my son. The secondary formal diagnosis of autism, enabled us to access the services from the district’s Autism Consultant. This was the key to opening up new doors that helped in the areas of behavior and communication.
Behavior and communication go hand in hand. As a child matures and approaches puberty, the behaviors can escalate to meltdowns that endanger themselves, family and school staff and peer students. It is essential to determine the function of these behaviors and get a positive behavior support plan in place. Evaluating the mode of communication is the second piece of the puzzle that must be addressed. If a child is frustrated due to lack of speech or being non-verbal, they will often act out through their behaviors. Individuals with DS-ASD may act out because they are trying to make sense of their world. That is why a positive behavior support plan and mode of communication can enable a child to make their needs known, so they can get these wishes met.
A BCBA Autism Consultant typically observes the child and takes data on behaviors by doing a Functional Behavior Analysis (FBA). This detective work will uncover what is causing the behavior and lead to developing a behavior plan to support the child.
Once the target behaviors have been identified, the Autism Consultant and IEP team members, along with the parents, can collaborate to find strategies to support the child.
For example if a child hits or pinches himself (Self-injurious behavior known as SIBS), or hurting others. The Autism Consultant would determine possible causes and the setting in which it took place, and what the function of the behavior could be (avoidance, escape, boredom, etc..). Possible antecedents might include:
*Diverted staff attention
*Loud or crowded environment
*A change in activity to a non-preferred activity.
*An object or activity is taken away
Supports can be put into place so that the child better understands what is expected. A visual schedule, social stories, and communication mode (Picture Exchange Communication System knowns as PECS, or a higher tech, talker device) can be determined and put into place to allow the child to express their feelings, wants and needs. The use of sensory diets and breaks, using noise cancelling headphones help the individual cope in stressful, crowded and loud environments, or regulation when the child is over or understimulated.
Providing behavior and communication support and strategies interventions for individuals with a dual diagnosis of DS-ASD will make a positive impact both at school and in the home setting. In addition, the secondary diagnosis of autism opens up doors to more services and funding from state for respite care and behavior support at home. Having outside help with respite care, relieves the burden of stress on the family, and enables parents to continue to enjoy personal interests and taking a break outside the home.
Getting a proper and formal assessment and evaluation for a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism is a game changer. Individuals with DS-ASD experience the world differently than just having Down syndrome or autism alone. Intervention and support strategies can be targeted to the individual to specifically address behavior, communication and sensory needs for the child. Finally, the second label of autism, will open up doors to support groups and additional funding for waivers that provide in home support and respite care for weary families like mine.
That’s what is in my noggin this week. 🙂
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