She participated on a panel of experts on the third show of a three-part series for HealthWatch, moderated by Terrance Afer-Anderson, at WHRO-TV studios in Norfolk on Monday. The panel, with physicians John Harrington and Eric Madren, both fathers of sons with autism, and Maria Urbano, co-director of an autism spectrum disorder program for teens and young adults at Eastern Virginia Medical School, explored the status of autism's diagnosis and treatment and took questions from the studio audience.
The experts attributed the rapid growth in numbers on the autism spectrum, as recorded by the Centers for Disease Control, to earlier and better diagnosis and a broader designation. All advocated for the earliest intervention possible. "Autism is treatable," said O'Keefe. Audience member Todd Humphrey, whose 4-year-old son receives speech therapy, occupational therapy and applied behavioral therapy (ABA), said that in eight months his son had gone from complete withdrawal to having a conversation. "His future is looking bright," he said. "It's proof of the importance of therapy."
Though the Virginia legislation approved insurance coverage for ABA therapy in 2011 for a limited age range — and with exceptions for small companies and self-insurers — its implementation has been stalled by additional licensing requirements for therapists, said O'Keefe.
Richard and Maxine Popik, grandparents of two girls on the autism spectrum, emphasized the importance of social interaction for the children and commended the Tidewater Autism Society for the opportunities it provides. Urbano concurred and said there's also a need to reduce the waiting time for services through the state Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, which can often last up to one year. She's an advocate for better vocational education, and frustrated by not being able to offer adult patients appropriate activities and resources. "It would be nice to prescribe those other pieces," she said.
John Harrington, director of general academic pediatrics at Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, cited anomalies in the Virginia school system; for example, his 17-year-old son, Sean, has enjoyed a landscaping class at his high school this year, but if he were to take the class again next year, he would not be allowed to participate on the swim team, where he's a competitive participant. The Harringtons moved from New York, where Sean received ABA therapy through the school system.
"Getting the diagnosis is very terrifying, a very isolating experience. All parents have the same issues," said O'Keefe. "They want services for their children and a way to pay for them." The Tidewater Autism Society, TAS, has started a one-on-one program in which staff meets with families to establish a roadmap on how to navigate the issues. "They know they're not alone. They leave with hope," she said. For a year now, TAS has also been taking its program, GFF (Good Friend Forever) to schools, to Boy Scout meetings, and to church groups, to teach neurotypical children about autism spectrum disorder and how they can be supportive of their peers.
In the future, family physician Madren believes that treatments will be much more diverse for those on the autism spectrum. "Thirty years from now, we'll say 'what were doing treating it all the same?'" he mused. Urbano, who is involved in two clinical trials testing new medications, anticipates that there will be a breakthrough regarding its cause in the next 10 years. "Progress in psychiatric genetics is very exciting," she said.
The series of three programs exploring the topic "Autism Spectrum Disorder" is available online at http://www.norfolk.gov and will be shown at different times on municipal TV stations throughout Hampton Roads. HealthWatch is a monthly service of the Norfolk Department of Public Health; it explores health issues facing the nation and impacting residents. http://www.norfolk.gov/index.aspx?NID=1115
For more information call the Health Promotions Office of the Norfolk Department of Public Health at 757-683-2756.
To reach the Tidewater Autism Society, call 757-675-1699, or go to http://www.tidewaterasa.org.