MU Health Care pediatrician Kristen Sohl, MD, has devoted much of her career to understanding kids with autism and sharing what she’s learned with the widest possible audience.
“Kids with autism are awesome just the way they are,” Sohl said. “There’s nothing broken about them. There’s nothing wrong with them. There are just some simple accommodations or tips that can help them thrive. A diagnosis is the key to helping unlock those opportunities.”
Dominic Jackson is a great example of that. He is a 4-year-old boy from Columbia with a big smile and a love of toy cars, which he brings with him wherever he goes. His grandmother Catherine Miller calls him a “fabulous joy of a child.” But when Dominic wasn’t saying words by age 3 and was having a lot of tantrums that stemmed from his inability to communicate, she encouraged her son, Kenneth Jackson, to get him evaluated for autism.
“Sometimes people are hesitant to get a diagnosis, because they don’t want their kid to be labeled, but they don’t realize that if you get a diagnosis, that can often open more doors for help,” Miller said. “A diagnosis is the key that starts many engines.”
About 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism, a neurological condition with symptoms that include communication difficulties, social challenges and repetitive behavior.
“We can recognize signs of autism at 12 months of age,” Sohl said. “It’s most common to diagnose it between 2 and 4, but we certainly don’t have to wait that long. If you see concerns like not using eye contact, not using gestures like pointing or a lack of interest in playing patty-cake or peek-a-boo or other games kids like to do, those are things that should trigger the thought to talk to your pediatrician.”
Not all pediatricians are comfortable in their ability to diagnose autism, but Sohl and her colleagues at MU Health Care are working to improve that situation and make it easier for kids across the state to get the help they need.
Sohl isn’t currently able to accept new patients, but MU Health Care pediatricians Alexandra James, MD, and Brett Moore, DO, have received extensive training in the diagnosis and care of children with autism. Parents who schedule an appointment with James or Moore at the Pediatrics Clinic at South Providence Medical Park typically can get their child a diagnostic exam in eight to 10 weeks. People in other parts of the state can find a doctor close to home who has received training from Sohl through a program she started in 2015 called ECHO Autism.
“With a diagnosis, we can provide referrals into speech and language pathology or speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy,” Sohl said. “There is a specific therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis that can be quite useful, especially for toddlers, helping them to learn social skills that can help them make friends and help them learn how to interact with their community better.”
Those treatments are available at MU Health Care’s Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and through other providers and agencies. After Sohl diagnosed Dominic, he began speech therapy at Columbia Public Schools’ Center for Early Learning and started receiving extra help at his daycare.
“We were able to get him more services,” Miller said. “That's helping him to blossom and do the things that he needs to do to get kindergarten-ready.”
Sohl compares the experience of being a young child with autism to living in a country where you don’t speak the language. When Dominic couldn’t express himself, sometimes he threw his toy cars or hit other kids at daycare.
“The first step is giving them some way to communicate their wants and needs,” Sohl said. “Sometimes that’s with an object, where I might say, ‘Do you want an apple or orange?’ and hold those two things up. Even if they can’t understand ‘Do you want?’ they usually can communicate by grabbing or pointing. That can reduce that frustration. As we work on those skills of helping the child navigate their environment and communicate their wants and needs, that often helps them open up into a space where they can continue building their social skills.”
Jackson and Miller are happy to report they've seen improvements already. At home, they work together on responding verbally to questions and learning important pre-kindergarten knowledge about colors, numbers and letters.
“We talk a lot to him and expect some form of return. ‘Do you want this, yes or no?’ It’s a lot of repeating until the whole house understands this is how we communicate with him to help him communicate better with us,” Miller said. “We’ve really been working on his name. When we ask him his name, and he can say his name or at least work on pieces of his name, he gets a fabulous marshmallow.”
Sohl said her goal for Dominic is to become the “best kid he was designed to be.” The progress he’s made since his diagnosis shows he’s well on his way.
“I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him,” his father said. “I’ll always be there for him, no matter what.”