April is Autism and Neurodiversity Acceptance Month. We decided to check in with Dr. Paul Lipkin, a developmental pediatrician at Kennedy Krieger Institute and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, to learn about Kennedy Krieger’s place in the autism community and what parents should know about Autism and Neurodiversity.

A quick note: Many in the autism community prefer person-first language (a child with autism); others use identity-first language (an autistic person). Kennedy Krieger recommends asking people what they prefer. For this article, both perspectives are used.

Tell us about Kennedy Krieger and its place in the autism community.

Sure, I would be happy to. At Kennedy Krieger, we provide a wide range of services for children, adolescents and adults with diseases, disorders and injuries that affect the nervous system, and that includes autism. We diagnose autism and help families with a plan. We have special education schools that are a good fit for many autistic children. We also have job training and internship programs for students moving onto independent living. Finally, we do much research on autism, its causes, interventions, and co-occurring conditions.

What has changed in what we know about autism?

In the 1980s, autism was a rare diagnosis. However, in the past 20 years, much has changed. We have more specific and accurate tools for diagnosis. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended screenings at 18 and 24 months, and there have been public health campaigns as well as media awareness. Now autism is more readily recognized and children are diagnosed and treated at younger ages, which helps both their development and learning. I also want to point out that the children first diagnosed using these more accurate tools are now young adults and they can share so much with us about their experiences. In fact, many have become effective self-advocates. Finally, what we know about autism continues to evolve, and that’s a good thing. Some of our colleagues across the country are studying the possibility of environmental factors, such as pollutants, and if they are a cause of autism. Work in that area is in its early stages.

When should parents have their child screened for autism?

The way a child communicates or interacts with others can be signs of autism. For example, when you point to a toy, does your child does follow this gesture? Does your child also use gestures? Do they put their arms up to be lifted? Can your child follow a direction, like “bring me that toy?” Are they using words or gestures to communicate with you? If your child does not interact with you in these situations, it’s time to talk with your pediatrician about screening for autism and other developmental conditions. There is a great tool, Learn the Signs. Act Early., which helps parents start that conversation with their pediatrician. It also has a list of milestones and even a smartphone app so parents know what to expect and at around what age these milestones occur. Again, the goal is to give parents the tools they need to start conversations with their child’s pediatrician, which is helpful throughout the childhood years.

Tell us about some of your research related to autism.

I am part of a team that has been studying the mental health of older children with autism. Youth mental health has been a concern throughout the pandemic for all children. However, a recent study we conducted at Kennedy Krieger shows that children with autism are twice as likely to report suicidal thoughts when screened for suicidal ideation at routine medical assessments. Many suicide prevention efforts are aimed at typically developing children. But we need to reach all children across the spectrum of neurodiversity, and to do that, we will continue to look at fine-tuning screening tools and continue to advocate.

Kennedy Krieger is hosting ROAR for Kids, a 5K or fun walk, on Saturday, April 30 at Oregon Ridge Park. Visit RoarforKids.org to sign up for this event, which includes a family festival and a mascot challenge. Watch the Oriole Bird, Towson University’s Doc the Tiger, and other fan favorites compete for bragging rights. Get outside and get moving for a great cause. We’ll see you there!

 

Wellness Wednesday explores health-related issues for children and family in our community. Our April series is sponsored by Kennedy Krieger Institute. Want to collaborate with us? Email [email protected]