Welcome to the December edition of Ask Dr. Emily!
We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.
We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Neuhaus will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: My 3 year old was recently found to have a genetic mutation that I’m told has been associated with autism. We are waiting for an autism evaluation. If there is a genetic mutation that cannot be corrected, do we sign up for all the therapies that kids with autism do? I have a friend whose child has Down syndrome and they don’t do any therapies except PT for his muscle tone. She says his genetic make-up will never change. I’m confused.
A: I can see why you’d feel confused! Whether a person has autism and whether they have an identified genetic difference are two separate questions, and it sounds like they’re getting mixed together here.
The short answer is yes – If your child does receive an autism diagnosis during their upcoming evaluation, you will want to pursue all of the therapies and supports your provider suggests, regardless of the genetic difference that they also have. In general, therapies recommended for individuals with autism (e.g., speech therapy, occupational therapy) are suggested based on each person’s unique areas of strength and difficulty, in order to address areas where skill deficits might be getting in the way.
For example, someone who does not have a way to communicate their needs effectively would likely benefit from therapy to develop communication skills and strategies, and so speech therapy might be recommended. Someone else might communicate easily but might find fine motor tasks such as hand-writing, buttoning clothing, or using silverware to be really challenging. For them, occupational therapy might be recommended to work on fine motor skills. Different people will benefit from supports in different areas, but for children with autism, areas that would benefit from support often include skills related to communicating with others, interacting socially, engaging in play, and working on sensory or motor difficulties. As a result, speech, occupational, and behavioral therapies are often suggested.
But, as you can see, none of these therapies address genetic make-up. Instead, they support skills to allow folks to participate in their communities and daily activities (e.g., school, work, self-care). Your friend is correct in that your child’s genetic make-up won’t change as a result of these therapies, but your child will continue to grow in many ways, develop a lot of new skills, learn new things, and have new experiences. The therapies your evaluation team recommends will support their growth and development, whether or not a genetic difference has been found.