Efforts of many to fight autism points to a bright future

Efforts of many to fight autism points to a bright future

This article was originally published in North County News.

Four adults swapped small talk about their families, while the waitress served their salads.

“She had a wonderful weekend,” the mother began. “Believe it or not, when our kitchen clock chimed with a Mockingbird’s song, Madison pointed to it.”

The three lunch mates paused in unison, some with salad bites frozen in mid-air.

“Amazing, Unbelievable,” the two dads exclaimed.

“She’s really making progress in her new school, it seems,” the other mother concluded.

And I beamed. Madison is my daughter, and it was fun sharing impressive news. Granted, Madison is 10 years old. Most kids that age have no trouble pointing and begin to do so before their first birthdays.

But Madison has autism, a neurological disorder that impairs communication. Children with autism rarely point; it is one of the first signs that a child may have autism.

Our group was meeting to discuss an upcoming charity golf tournament that will benefit Pathfinders for Autism, a new Towson-based non-profit.

Autism has touched each of our lives deeply. We are determined to help others who must travel the same path.

“That’s great, Becky,” the mother spoke to me again.

I paused, studying the joy on her face.

Her thoughts were of particular interest to me. Although she did not have a child with autism as the rest of us did, she had treated hundreds of children with autism.

Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of Kennedy Krieger’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders, is a leading researcher on early detection of autism, and was also my guest for lunch that day.

“Why is pointing important?” I asked her.

And the fascinating explanation began.

I learned that Prodeclarative Pointing (PDP) is a pre-verbal skill that is a major milestone in the development of children. When children point, they show they know something that you don’t; want to share it with you; understand that your mind is separate from theirs and that you have the capacity to “see” what they see, if they show it to you; and acknowledge that the pointing gesture, a symbol, is meaningful to both of you.

Pointing, I learned, is a pivotal skill in the development of both language and social development. Amazing. All from one extended index finger.

However, children with autism often fail to draw others’ attention to objects by pointing. They tend to ask for things in a different way, often pulling the person to the object they want, rather than pointing to it.

Failure to point can indicate abnormal language development and social interaction, the unmistakable trademarks of autism.

After the lunch, I pondered Dr. Landa’s discourse on pointing. I now understand the explanation of pointing and its symbolism. But what, I wondered, is the significance for Madison?

Reluctantly, I admitted the proverbial answer, “Who knows?” to be the appropriate one. After a decade of parenting a child with autism, I also have learned that categorizing kids with autism is about as easy as herding cats.

Even though all children with autism experience some kind of social or language impairment, each child is different. Some children with autism are brilliant; others severely developmentally delayed. Some talk non-stop; others never talk at all. Some respond well to intense behavioral therapy; picture exchange systems, music therapy, or aquatic therapy; others have limited, if any, response.

There is good reason to call it a “spectrum disorder.”

However, progress, no matter how delayed, can always open the door for the possible. With just one point of her finger, Madison let me know that her beautiful mind is still developing, still learning, and still lively.

Indeed, who knows what her future could hold.