A wide spectrum to approach

Five-year-old Emily Phillips beams around the house with a smile that melts hearts. Her parents, Susan and Larry Phillips, adopted Emily at birth, and she's grown into a bubbly, curious child.

She attends pre-kindergarten at Laguna Beach Presbyterian Church, rides her scooter and sometimes asks Susan if she can have some candy, the usual childhood desires.

Emily is also autistic, one of a growing number of children diagnosed with a syndrome characterized by impaired social interaction.

The Laguna Beach Unified School District reflects a nationwide trend of greater numbers of children being diagnosed with autism, data show.

In six years, the number of district students with autism has increased from 29 at the end of 2007 to 76 as of last December, according to Irene White, the district's special-education director.

The 76 students represent 25% of the 302 students in special-education programs.

Susan suspected something was wrong when Emily was 18 months old.

"She had no eye contact with anyone but myself," Susan wrote in an email. "She was unaware we had two dogs. She never pointed to anything and had no words."

Lapses in concentration and a lack of social etiquette are other symptoms of autism.

A speech pathologist picked up on Susan's suspicion, and a neurologist diagnosed Emily with autism two months shy of her third birthday.

Emily has outbursts, bangs her head on the ground and pushes the dog for no reason, Susan said.

At times Emily is too outgoing with kids on the playground.

"She comes on strong, and [the other kids] don't know how to react," Susan said in an interview. "We have to explain to her that kids need their space."

While Emily was behind in her physical development — she began crawling at 11 months and walked at 18 months — she learned to read early, at age 3, Susan said.

Emily sees a neurologist once a year and doesn't take medication. She works with two behavior specialists once a week and spends two hours each day after school learning to properly socialize with other kids.


Crucial early intervention

The hallmark feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, is impaired social interaction, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

A baby with ASD may be unresponsive or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement. Many engage in repetitive movements, such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior, such as biting or head-banging.

Conditions on the autism spectrum strike 1 in 88 children and are four times more likely to occur in boys, according to a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

Of 24 children eligible for special-education classes in Laguna Beach Unified, nine fall on the autism spectrum, White said.

One reason for the uptick could be improved diagnosis, she said.

Early intervention, before kindergarten, is crucial to helping children with autism succeed at school. The district's preschool program focuses on following directions, working independently on simple tasks and playing cooperatively with others.

Students who receive these instructions demonstrate more engagement and on-task behaviors once they start elementary school, White said.

The district's autism/behavior specialist, Luisa Martinez, supervises teachers and aides who work with autistic kids. Martinez joined the district three years ago.


In the classroom

Launa Kirkey has taught special-needs preschool children at Top of the World Elementary School for nine years.

The iPad has revolutionized the way Kirkey teaches her students — the access to myriad pictures has been a boon.

"I remember spending a lot of the day printing pictures, but now all the photos are on the iPad," Kirkey said.

The goal is to get children listening to directions from a teacher, parent or a peer, so as a child gets older, Kirkey uses iPads less often.

"One of the biggest challenges is communication," Kirkey said. "A lot of times they don't have the language [development]. They'll throw tantrums or hit. I try to create an environment that's predictable with not many surprises."

Children as young as Emily and as old as 17-year-old Cory Nolan have benefited from the iPad.

"Visual prompts are very helpful to [Emily]," Susan said. "At home we have many apps on our iPad that are specific to kids with autism."

For Cory, the iPad allows him to speak, even though he can't.

Cory and twin brother Tristen were diagnosed with autism when they were 2, mother Kathy Nolan said.

Tristen and Cory are on different ends of the spectrum — Tristen is higher-functioning than Cory and attends mainstream classes at Laguna Beach High School. He attended Top of the World Elementary and Thurston Middle schools.

Cory attends a private school and can't talk, but he loves the ocean and bicycle riding. Kathy praises her mother-in-law, Josh Nolan, who takes Cory for bike rides.

Cory learned to type on an iPad and uses it to communicate with his family.

He felt remorse and sadness for the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings in December 2012 and sought a higher power, Kathy said.

"He found God, wanted to go to church," she said. "If he didn't have that 'voice,' he would be aggressive. They get aggressive because they can't speak their mind."

Kathy and Dan teach Tristen to be self-motivating and responsible. Tristen scores high in science and math and has taken a criminal justice class because he wants to become a forensic scientist.

A guidance counselor works with him once a week, checking in on his workload. A five-page assignment might be pared down to three to lessen Tristen's anxiety.

"They don't want him stressed out," Kathy said. "The teenage years are challenging, all the emotions going through trying to find themselves."

What's helped is a strong marriage, talking to other parents and attending support groups, Kathy said, adding that district counselors, psychologists and teachers deserve a lot of credit.


Searching for a cure

There is no cure for autism, but UC Irvine School of Medicine researchers are doing their best to find one.

The university's Center for Autism Research and Translation, directed by Dr. Jay Gargus, was created with the goal of developing cutting-edge diagnosis and treatment for autism using a slightly different method than traditional means.

Autism doesn't have a single known cause, but genetics and environment play a role, the university's website says.

Instead of targeting the disease's cause — a moving target — researchers are focusing on the way autism affects a person's biology.

The CART team includes more than 50 UCI faculty members, among them molecular geneticists, biophysicists, behaviorists, neurobiologists and pharmacologists.

Funding will be crucial to the center's research on autism, Gargus writes on the website.

"Traditional National Institutes of Health and private agency grants will continue to play a critical role going forward," Gargus said. "We clearly could not have launched such an aggressive campaign without a visionary major philanthropic investment, and will not be able to sustain our path without ongoing committed support from the community.

"We are confident that the program and its goals are feasible because all of the necessary pieces are already in place at UC Irvine."

One need only look into Emily's eyes to see how important it is to continue the research.

"We feel so blessed to be her parents," Susan said. "We will continue to advocate for her and make sure that she has every opportunity to have a happy and productive life."

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World