Autism Asperger Associates of Michigan is a comprehensive organization that is designed to support children, adolescents and adults with autism and Asperger Syndrome. Our goal is to work with individuals and families to create quality of life for today and tomorrow, through education, understanding and support in their goals.
Autism Asperger Associates of Michigan is a dream of director Kristen Priem. When her oldest son was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in 1994, Aspergers was considered a "new" diagnosis. Consequently, no one knew how to program for these children educationally or in the private sector. Kristen searched endlessly for information and services beyond what the school district could provide, with limited success. "This organization is a dream come true for me", says Priem. "It is a compilation of everything I wish had been available for my son when he was younger."
Priem finished a second Masters Degree in Education with special education endorsements in Early Childhood Education, Learning Disabilities and Autism. She also has a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis from Penn State and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. Having taught in an urban district as an autism teacher for several years at the elementary and preschool level, Priem is now an autism consultant for students of all ages within a large urban area.
"Creating Quality of Life for Today and Tomorrow", is what it's all about", says Priem. "Families living with autism and other disabilities, face many challenges. My goal is to help them reach their goals, wiser, happier and looking with optimism toward the future".
Autism a mystery, but there are strategies for coping
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
By Kathy Carrier
The Grand Rapids Press
Like many teen-age boys, Nathan Priem, 15, loves video games, playing on the computer and collecting Japanese-style anime comics.
A history buff with an avid interest in World War II, Nathan can name all of the U.S. presidents and knows every nation's flag. He's articulate, funny, smart and charming -- not what most people expect from someone who has autism.
"It feels like everyone expects me to be some kind of freak or something, and no one seems to understand," Nathan says in a soft-spoken voice. "I still don't have any friends."
Nathan has Asperger's syndrome, the highest-functioning form of autism in a broad range of developmental conditions called Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Autism is a complex, lifelong condition that affects the way a person communicates, functions in everyday situations and interacts with other people. Symptoms differ greatly from one individual to another. There are no medical tests for diagnosing autism and no cure.
Diagnosed when he was 6, Nathan isn't cognitively impaired -- which means he has an average IQ -- but has obsessive/compulsive disorder and many anxiety issues. Like many with autism, he's incapable of telling a lie.
Hard to fit in
A freshman at Rockford High School, he's still trying to adjust to the change from middle school and fit in.
"Last year, when I was in eighth grade, the obsessive/compulsive problems got so bad that I had to stay home for five months," he said. "I was terrified that if I left the house, I was going to fly into oblivion."
Although he's in a regular history class and averages A-minus in grades, Nathan spends most of his school hours in a classroom with several other autistic students.
"I'm embarrassed to be in the autism room, because people look at me like I have glow-in-the dark tentacles on my head," he says.
"Autism is not a disease but a developmental disorder," says Carol Gray, a nationally recognized expert on Autism Spectrum Disorders and author and founder of the Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding, 4123 Embassy Drive SE, in Kentwood.
It's the fastest-growing developmental disability in the world, according to the Autism Society of America.
"I don't think we've identified all of the factors, but I still think we're seeing a genuine increase. We're seeing a rise in the number of older children, too," Gray said.
No one knows exactly why. Theories range from environmental and genetic factors to more awareness of autism, earlier diagnoses and a broader definition. Those factors may account for some but not all of the increase, Gray said.
Autism also can be tricky to diagnose.
"Most young children are diagnosed as toddlers and show signs of delays in socialization, communication and language, and behavior," said Nathan's mom, Kristen Priem, director of Autism Asperger Associates of Michigan and autism teacher-consultant for the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Evaluating those abilities is key in determining if children have autism or other Autism Spectrum Disorders, she added. People with autism do not process social information in the same part of the brain as those without the disorder, Gray said. When interacting with others, most people tend to focus on the eyes to read emotions, infer meaning in conversation and get a feeling about a person or situation.
"People with ASD focus on the mouth and words," Gray said. "Only about 7 percent of the intended meaning comes through the actual words."
Early ID is best
A growing number of child development experts say autism often can be identified much younger than typically is done today, and early treatment can alter dramatically the course of the brain disorder that affects about one in 250 U.S. children.
Doctors can reliably diagnose autism by age 2, and researchers are developing screening tools to identify autistic youngsters as early as 18 months, said Geraldine Dawson, director of the Autism Center at the University of Washington's Center on Human Development and Disability.
Later this month, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will launch a campaign to promote earlier diagnosis of autism. A lack of nonverbal communication could be one of the first signs a child isn't developing normally, experts say.
The campaign aims to educate pediatricians about symptoms while urging parents to reject "wait and see" advice from a doctor.
For those with Asperger's syndrome, it's sometimes hard to tell they even have a developmental disorder. Their behavior may seem simply eccentric or "different," Priem said.
Once a child is diagnosed with autism, parents must decide what type of treatment or therapy can be used to help the child function. Experts agree doing this as early as possible is key.
"Years ago, there was nothing to help these kids," Priem said. "No conferences, no books, no support groups or anything. Now, there's a wide range of different interventions (strategies) for parents to choose from."
A number of autism strategies are being used to help improve language, social interaction, understanding and communication. Many target a specific area of development such as the sensory system, social situations and speech and language. Often, a combination is advisable, depending upon the child, Priem said.
"There's no cookie-cutter program that works for everyone," she said.
Treatment methods often are used in combination with speech/language therapy and occupational therapy. Drugs may be prescribed, not to treat basic symptoms but to help with behavioral problems.
Many parents feel urgency when a child is diagnosed and want to try everything.
"My advice to parents who are first exploring services for autism is to focus on what they feel are their child's greatest needs at this point," Priem said.