While the incidence of children with autism has increased throughout the country, the number in New Jersey is particularly high, according to a statement from the Parent Resource Center, a program of the Riskin Children’s Center in Clifton.
Still, that statement may be misleading, said Dr. Ami Klin, director of the autism program and Harris Professor of Child Psychology and Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine. In fact, said Klin, the large number of New Jersey cases may be attributable to the state’s success in raising awareness.
|Dr. Ami Klin|
“New Jersey has a history of probably among the best services in the country,” he said. Organizations in the state work hard not only to create a higher level of services but also to provide access to those services, he added, ruling out the notion that New Jersey has seen any kind of “cluster of cases.”
On Dec. 3, Klin will lead a workshop on contemporary issues in autism and Asperger’s for clinicians and parents at the Riskin Center, a project of the Jewish Family Service of Clifton/Passaic. Esther East, JFS executive director, said the speaker has visited the community before.
“The depth of his knowledge about autism and Asperger’s led the parents to request another opportunity to learn from him,” she said.
A statement from the Riskin Center notes that Klin has written more than 150 publications in the field of autism and related conditions. According to the statement, “Dr. Klin is a passionate advocate for acceptance of people with autism in ways that treat them as individuals. He states that they are no more alike in their needs than other groups in society, and he sees the need to tailor treatments and interventions accordingly.”
In a conversation with this newspaper, Klin described autism as a neuro-developmental disorder that starts early in life, even before a child is born, with symptoms generally not visible until the child’s first or second year. Its effects, he said, “have lifetime consequences on the child’s ability to interact socially, acquire language, and develop real-life skills.”
Noting that we want all our children to fulfill their potential, Klin said that “research has shown that the earlier we identify a child with autism and intervene, the more likely we are to make a dent. There’s a premium on identifying kids early.”
The autism program at Yale, he said, is involved in clinical research, training, and advocacy. One aspect of that research is “to elevate the field of early identification of autism [and] to create techniques and methods to identify the earliest signs” marking the condition.
“Autism is first and foremost a social disability that originates in the brain and has a strong genetic component,” said Klin, adding that “most evidence suggests that subtypes are kinds of ‘cousins’ rather than ‘strangers.'”
All types of the condition are marked by social disability and early emergence, he said, adding that “because socialization is the platform upon we learn so much about the world and because socialization is affected from so early on, it has a cascading effect on multiple areas of development.”
At the Dec. 3 presentation Klin will speak about early mechanisms of social survival and how they can be measured so that when there is a “departure from the normative path,” we can recognize it as a marker of autism.
For example, noting that newborns are born in “an utter state of fragility,” totally dependent on caregivers, he stressed the importance of eyes, through which babies detect other people’s intentions, motivations, and feelings.
“Babies are entranced by other people’s eyes,” he said. “Eyes are an important window to social neuroscience.”
He noted also the importance of “biological motion,” the ability to recognize that the movement of living beings is different from the movement of things.
“Babies are born with a preferential orientation to biological movement,” he said, adding that “the ability to detect biological motion is a precursor to attributing intentions to others.”
Autistic children, however, have “a disorder of social intuition” and are unable to process “everything we don’t need to think about.”
Still, said Klin, “If [something] can be mediated by language or by explicit, conscious problem-solving,” we can possibly teach it to the autistic child.
This has implications for the classroom, he said, and for the way we teach children the rules of social interaction. One problem, however, is that while autistic children can learn explicit rules, “there are difficulties in how to employ those rules in a social world that changes over time. The more naturalistic the situation, the less predictable it is, they have the greatest difficulty, since they cannot intuit others’ intentions.”
As a result, he said, such children are “extremely gullible and vulnerable, the best targets in the world.”
Klin said the community is much better prepared to deal with autism that we were even 10 years ago.
“It’s a cultural construct. People are more aware,” he said, adding that awareness varies from state to state. He pointed out that a large number of individuals with autism spectrum disorders are in trouble with the legal system since, for example, “they may have a high IQ and know marine biology” but don’t know that they can’t make sexually inappropriate comments.
“They don’t know what they’re being punished for,” he said. “They’re basically unable to judge. We try to teach them, but life is a long process.”
JFS’s East pointed out that the Riskin Children’s Center integrates services under one roof, addressing the child as a whole.
“The Riskin Children’s Center was established seven years ago to bring all the children’s mental health services that had been part of Jewish Family Service under one expanded entity,” she explained, noting that the center serves more than 1,000 children each year. Programs include child psychiatry services, PALS of Passaic County – a recovery program for children exposed to domestic violence – a full array of child therapies, school based social-work services, and a parent resource center for parents of children with special needs.
“All of the programming is designed to help parents and professionals develop a greater shared language in advocating for the needs of the children,” said East.
For further information about the workshop, call (973) 777-7638 or visit www.jfsclifton.org.