Autism diagnosis team up and running
Bermuda is now getting its first ever on-Island autism assessment, with a new clinical team offering free diagnosis for the disorder — something which previously entailed a costly trip overseas.
And a National Autism Clinic is the eventual goal of the fledgling service, according to Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute executive director Sharon Apopa.
“It’s been a challenge in Bermuda getting a proper diagnosis,” consultant psychologist Carla Bean told The Royal Gazette. “We were seeing families having to spend a lot of money or get sponsorship for diagnosis or services.”
The four-person team at Child and Adolescent Services is currently slogging through a 50-family backlog.
The Island’s prevalence of autism isn’t yet known, but numbers worldwide have soared. Bermuda appears to be no exception.
“There are two schools of thought to this,” explained child psychiatrist Ranil Abeysinghe. “Some say autism has increased, but most agree that it’s being diagnosed more frequently. As you bring awareness to the population, parents tend to look for more diagnoses of disorders.”
Autism involves a bundle of different symptoms, ranging from impaired communication and social interaction to distinctive repetitive behaviours.
It was considered “very rare” at the time of its first diagnosis in 1943, Dr Abeysinghe said, but has now climbed to around one in 68.
A top goal for Bermuda’s team is to ensure that autism is spotted as early as possible.
“Once we get the information of what levels of autism we’re working with, then the plan is to expand and involve other service providers across the Island,” Dr Bean said.
Early diagnosis means earlier treatment, but technological strides have made life easier for adults diagnosed with the disorder.
Occupational therapist Moffat Makomo pointed to the example of US activist Mary Temple Grandin, now a professor at Colorado State University — and Carly Fleischmann, an autistic and non-speaking teenager who types into her iPad to express herself.
“With technology, there are people, especially low-functioning people, who are now able to get by,” Mr Makomo said.
Technology has its pitfalls: increased awareness means some parents jump the gun and fasten onto behavioural quirks as definite signs of autism.
Once the clinal team based at MWI have made an informed diagnosis, “what we do is collaborate with other agencies — parents sign a consent form, we meet with the child together with the parents, and we come up with a treatment plan”, Mr Makomo added.
According to staff nurse Sonia Clarke, one of the top benefits of the clinic is the fact that “parents no longer have to uproot and take their families to Boston Children’s Hospital or elsewhere at huge cost — they can stay here on the Island”.
Services at the clinic are currently offered free. There is an Autism Spectrum Disorder clinic offered every Thursday; families can call or drop in for a referral.
“Early intervention is important,” Dr Bean said. “The most important, crucial years are birth to age five. If we can catch it within that window, there’s a very strong likelihood for behaviours that are considered undesirable to be modified. That’s not to say that for people who have gone past that window, there’s no hope. It’s all a matter of finding the appropriate treatment.”