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The World of Autism Dispelling the Myths

He arrived home from school a short time ago, but already 14-year-old Kevin Urlacher of Moorhead has ridden his bike, played with the family dog, Amber, and reminded his mom several times to put the flower pots in the garage.

He arrived home from school a short time ago, but already 14-year-old Kevin Urlacher of Moorhead has ridden his bike, played with the family dog, Amber, and reminded his mom several times to put the flower pots in the garage.

Next, 16-year-old Sarah, one of two older sisters, arrives home. She and Kevin have the same conversation every day. Oddly, Kevin asks Sarah, "How was your day, Kevin?" He repeats the question over and over until Sarah responds: "How was your day, Kevin?" Happily, Kevin runs through the list of all he did; Sarah listens patiently. The conversation goes as expected, and all is good. But if it veers from the routine, Kevin strongly reacts. Welcome to the world of autism – a world that may surprise you.

Myth 1: "Autism always looks the same"
Characterized by difficulties in communicating and interacting, autism is a neurological disorder that strikes as many as one in 150 children. The severity and symptoms vary widely, as Kevin's parents, Karen and Glenn, know well. "We'd heard that children with autism aren't affectionate, yet Kevin is very affectionate," says Karen. Adds Glenn: "When Kevin sees sadness, he'll be the first to run over and give a hug."

For children with autism, difficulties in appropriate interaction and communication typically emerge between the ages of 12 and 24 months. "There is not a single behavior you can point to and say, 'That's autism,' which underscores the need for a comprehensive evaluation in making an accurate diagnosis," says Ron Miller, board-certified pediatrician and physician leader at MeritCare Children's. Comprehensive evaluations by a team of professionals representing many different medical specialties are available at MeritCare's Coordinated Treatment Center.

"Even though there's no cure for this disorder, we know that early intervention makes a significant difference in how well the family copes and how much improvement the child makes," says Dr. Miller.

Myth 2: "Autism is caused by vaccines"
"Parents ask about this often, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence that supports a link between vaccines and autism," says Dr. Miller. "In the last five years, countless articles have been published in reputable journals, including the Sept. 27, 2007, New England Journal of Medicine, that show no relationship." The cause of autism is not yet clear.

Myth 3: "There's one treatment that works"
Shortly after Kevin was diagnosed at age 5, Karen and Glenn were inundated with well-meaning people informing them of treatment options. "Horse therapy, special diets, herbal supplements – everyone has their ideas about what works," says Glenn. "But in the end, what works for one child doesn't necessarily work for another."

For Kevin, the treatment approach that made the biggest difference was intensive in-home therapy from age 6 to age 13. Directed by an autism specialist and carried out by students from Minnesota State University Moorhead's special education program, the therapy helped Kevin learn to communicate and interact more appropriately. Today, Kevin can converse more normally at times, but when frustrated, often reverts to what his family calls "movie talk" – repeating phrases he's heard in movies.

As for Kevin's future? "You always think the perfect dream for your child is to do well in school, go to college, get married and have a family," says Karen. "But with Kevin, we realize it's different. We pray every night that he'll be the best he can be, continue to be happy and live up to his potential. We're thankful, too, for all he's added to our family. Yes, we've had struggles, but joy, too. He's brought so much joy."

For more information about MeritCare's Coordinated Treatment Center's developemental education clinic, please call (701) 234-6600.