The library overflowed Wednesday evening as parents, grandparents and educators sought information about autism spectrum disorders. The large crowd put faces on the growing number of those who lives are touched by autism.
According to recent estimates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. In New Jersey, 1 in 49 children—1 in 29 boys and 1 in 172 girls—has been diagnosed as having the disorder, which is characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
In honor of Autism Awareness month, the Westfield Special Education Committee hosted a presentation led by Dr. Roseann Pagano Pizzi.
Pizzi is not only the psychology supervisor at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, she is also the mother of a fourth-grader at with autism spectrum disorder.
Moving deftly between the professional and the personal, Pizzi shared the most recent developments in autism research as well as some early indicators that a child may have autism spectrum disorder.
Calling her job a labor of love, Pizzi explained that she diagnoses children and offers guidance to their parents, noting that the earlier a diagnosis is made and early intervention is obtained the better the potential outcome for the child.
In her Powerpoint presentation, Pizzi looked at the upcoming changes in autism diagnostic criteria. Revisions to the fifth edition of the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) have many concerned that if their child's diagnosis were to change, vital support services would be cut.
Pizzi said she believes that a possible rating system on a 0 to 5 scale, with 0 representing the population that is non-verbal or has trouble speaking and 5 being the highest functioning group, would not be as troubling as critics may initially believe.
Unless someone has their child re-diagnosed, she said, they will not receive a number. She said she believes children will continue to be evaluated on their strengths and weaknesses and those skill levels will translate into the services offered. She did note that the rating system could be detrimental if parents choose to focus on that number rather than the child's attributes.
Included in Pizzi's presentation were videos from the Autism Speaks website which compared children who have autism spectrum disorder with their typically-developing peers. Pizzi noted that one of the first things parents of children with autism spectrum disorder notice is that the child doesn't respond to his or her name. She said for that reason many parents initially suspect a hearing impairment. She also noted lack of joint attention and avoidance can be present in a child with autism spectrum disorder versus his or her typically developing peer. Pizzi recommended visiting the website for additional free resource information.
Pizzi's complete presentation will be available on the Westfield Special Education Committee's website.
Dr. Michael Weissman, Assistant Superintendent for Pupil Personnel Services, said the school district is constantly looking at the best strategies and best approaches to support this population in this ever-evolving field. He said this summer the district will pilot a social skills program in its efforts to meet the needs of its students.
Helene Bergman, co-chair of the Special Ed Committee, said at its next meeting the committee will host a forum on recreational opportunities in the area and county for children with special needs.
The committee will be accepting applications for the Katherine E. Cuthbertson Memorial Achievement Award, which is awarded to up to four graduating high school seniors, who have persevered despite learning differences. Applications can be found online or at the guidance office and will be accepted through May 1.
For more information, Pizzi can be reached at rpizzi@childrens_specialized.org.