Detroit experts say autism is overdiagnosed

Facebook event, parent magazine offer information

Autism is often misdiagnosed, according to Henry Ford specialists.

A proper diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder should be made by a team of specialists, said Dr. Colleen Allen, program director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CADD), with locations in Detroit and West Bloomfield.

Allen was among many local experts and keynote speaker Temple Grandin to speak at the third annual "Living with Autism Workshop" on April 29 in Troy. The event was sponsored by Metro Parent magazine, Ferndale, and Henry Ford Health System, Detroit. The event takes place every year at the end of April, National Autism Awareness Month.

Those who were not able to attend the event may attend a live Facebook "Answers for Autism: Taking the Mystery Out of the Autism Diagnosis" Clickcast video conference and interactive text chat with Henry Ford experts at 2 p.m. on May 14. Also, Metro Parent will post Power Points from workshop talks on its website (MetroParent.com), said Lisa Grace, events director for Metro Parent magazine.

Complexity makes autism hard to diagnose

"Autism is such a complex disorder. It is easily misdiagnosed," said Allen, a speech and language pathologist with Henry Ford Health System.

Autism spectrum disorders are developmental disabilities that cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three types are autistic disorder, Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder - not otherwise specified (also called atypical autism). The disorders range from very mild to severe. They begin before the age of 3 and last throughout a person's lifetime, but symptoms may improve over time. Although there is currently no cure, research shows early intervention treatment can greatly improve a child's development, according to the CDC.

Since Henry Ford's CADD program opened in July 2008, only about 25 percent of 300 children evaluated have met the criteria for an autistic spectrum disorder, Allen said. The two- to three-hour evaluation includes a speech-language pathologist, a geneticist and a developmental pediatrician, as well as a child neurologist and a child psychiatrist if necessary. Most of it is often covered by health insurance, and the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation in Detroit has provided a $50,000 grant to support the mental health portion of the diagnostic evaluation, Allen said.

The CADD diagnoses of autism are much lower than what would be expected based on CDC estimates that one in 110 children in the United States has an autistic spectrum disorder, Allen said.

Other conditions have similar symptoms

Symptoms that could make a parent or health care professional suspect autism may actually be the result of a speech or language delay; a behavioral, emotional or psychiatric diagnosis; a cognitive impairment; a nutritional or sleep deficit; or a medical diagnosis, she said.

"When I started 30 years ago, autistic behaviors were very extreme and autism was rare," said Dr. Barry Wolf, a geneticist, pediatrician and member of the CADD team. "Now, you can hardly find a family that doesn't have someone who has been diagnosed with autism. I don't think the incidence has increased so much. The labeling has increased dramatically."

About 10 percent of children with an autistic spectrum disorder have a genetic, neurologic or metabolic disorder, such as fragile X or Down syndrome, according to the CDC.

Carol Afflerbaugh, the director of autism programs at Kaufman Children's Center in West Bloomfield, discusses applied verbal behavior programs for autistic and other language-challenged children. TrainIn is a renewable four-week center-based program involving two and a half hours of daily, five-day-a-week one-on-one intervention. HomeRun is an in-home program that employs tutors to provide the same language and behavior intervention. Health insurance coverage varies, said Afflerbaugh, who is a speech-language pathologist and board-certified behavior analyst.

Bullying is a problem for Asperger's patients

Nick Dubin of West Bloomfield talks about bullying and anxiety, and how they affect Asperger's syndrome sufferers. Since being diagnosed with Asperger's in 2004, Dubin, who is 33, has become a passionate advocate. He has published three books and produced three DVDs about Asperger's, and frequently gives presentations on the subject. He recently earned a doctorate in psychology from the Michigan School of Professional Psychology, Farmington Hills.

"Kids with Asperger's are very vulnerable to being bullied in the schools. They have different behaviors that make them targets," said Dubin, who supports Michigan anti-bullying legislation that would force every school to implement policies against bullying.

Six hundred and fifty tickets, priced between $75 and $100 each, sold for the autism workshop, Grace said. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Los Angeles-based Autism Speaks, the nation's largest autism advocacy and research nonprofit organization.

Temple Grandin, perhaps the best-known person with Asperger's syndrome, is a designer of livestock handling facilities and professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo. She was recently featured in the HBO movie "Temple Grandin," which is based on her best-selling book, "Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism" (Vintage: 1996).


Kaufman Children's Center

Published by Elizabeth Voss

I'm a freelance writer living in Farmington Hills, MI. Current and former clients include Crain Communications DetroitMakeItHere.com, "Crain's Detroit Business," Signature Media, "Cerebral Palsy Magazine" an...  View profile