Specialist discusses science of autism

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Willington - posted Thu., Nov. 7, 2013
Dr. Michael D. Powers (right), director of the Center for Children with Special Needs, talks with Carol and Vincent Moriarty, of Coventry, just two of several people who came to hear Powers' presentation on the diagnosis and treatment for people with autism spectrum disorders. Photos by Annie Gentile.
Dr. Michael D. Powers (right), director of the Center for Children with Special Needs, talks with Carol and Vincent Moriarty, of Coventry, just two of several people who came to hear Powers' presentation on the diagnosis and treatment for people with autism spectrum disorders. Photos by Annie Gentile.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, a meeting of Success SEPTO - a special education parent teacher organization serving northeast Connecticut families - welcomed Dr. Michael D. Powers, who provided a presentation called “Understanding Autism” at the Willington Public Library.

Powers is the director of the Center for Children with Special Needs, located in Glastonbury, as well as an assistant clinical professor of psychology at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, and a published author on several autism-related books and articles. His center offers diagnostic and evaluation services and treatment for children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), and he has been involved in designing educational programs from Martha’s Vineyard to Kazakhstan.

In terms of diagnoses, Powers said ASDs exist under the overarching heading of neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by impairments in social, academic, personal or occupational functioning. “This is a good thing, because [autism] is a brain problem. The more we dive into this, the more evidence we have,” he said. While children and adults with ASDs often display a wide range of symptoms, Powers said they most commonly have impairments in areas of social interaction, communication, and responding to sensory stimuli. Many also display ritualistic and repetitive behaviors, commonly called “stimming.” About 1 in 88 children have been identified with an ASD, Powers said, quoting the most recent statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but he said the sharp increase in diagnoses from years ago is likely because so many more people were misdiagnosed as being bipolar, schizophrenic, or having some other mental disorder.

Powers used a few simple examples to illustrate the world of an autistic person. He noted that while most people attending the presentation would shut out the background sound of a fan that was running, the autistic person might become very focused on it, to the exclusion of everything else. Or the autistic person might not hear a word of what he was saying in his talk because he or she was fascinated instead by the pattern on his tie. He or she might get very upset if the person who drove to the event took a slightly different driving route than they normally do. Such inabilities to handle even the slightest changes in a routine can make it very difficult to function. “Think social. In the autism world, symptoms together limit and impair everyday functioning,” said Powers.

Because early diagnosis and treatment of autism has been found to produce better outcomes for individuals with ASDs, Powers said he is very interested in groundbreaking research with babies, particularly the Autism Baby Siblings Research Consortium Study, a collaborative worldwide research effort. Autism is a disorder that runs in families, and the study looks at markers when evaluating the baby siblings of older children with ASDs. The study gauges such things as language development in babies as well as eye contact in 3- to 6-month-olds - what they look at and what they don’t.

“There is no autism gene, but there are susceptibility regions where 15 or more genes may be implicated,” said Powers. “There’s a lot of great science going on in this area, but no confirmed group of genes yet,” he said. Yet while he said he is very happy to see this type of research going on, his chief concern is how to best help children and adults with ASDs right now. CCSN, he said, focuses on diagnosis and effective, evidence-based practices for educational programs for children with ASDs.

On Wednesday, Nov. 20, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Success SEPTO will be sponsoring a talk by Dr. Kristen D’Eramo, also of CCSN, entitled, “Assessment in Autism Spectrum Disorders: What, Where, and When to Evaluate.” All programs are held at the Willington Public Library. Success SEPTO encourages you to like them on Facebook and to visit their website at www.successsepto.org.  They offer many opportunities to get involved in leadership, and to support children with special needs in local schools and in the community.


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