It is a helpless feeling for a parent whose child has been diagnosed with autism, UCLA’s Tanya Paparella writes in her new book, " More Than Hope: For Young Children on the Autism Spectrum ." But with the right tools early on, she says, mothers and fathers can rest a little easier knowing they can have long-lasting, positive impact on their child’s development.
Paparella should know. An associate clinical professor in the UCLA Division of Child Psychiatry, she has spent more than 20 years treating children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a range of impairments that strikes early in childhood. ASD disrupts a child’s ability to communicate and develop social relationships and is often accompanied by acute behavioral challenges.
"Parent’s become overwhelmed with the thought that their little one is ’on the spectrum,’" Paparella said. "It turns people’s lives upside down as they struggle to cope with their own emotions, family and everyday life."
Further, she noted, many parents are desperate to intervene immediately to help their children, but they often don’t know where to start, and they frequently face an extended — and agonizing — waiting period before formal clinical interventions begin.
Paparella says she wrote the book, along with co-author Laurence Lavelle, a UCLA faculty member and recipient of the university’s Distinguished Lecturer Award, to address that sense of frustration on the part of parents and to empower them by providing an easy-to understand set of practical strategies they can use to intervene early.
"Parents can make an enormous difference to their children’s development if they know what to do. The earlier the intervention, the better — and parents are at the forefront," she said. "Young children on the autism spectrum can make tremendous change and achieve what seemed impossible before they were treated. The effects of early intervention can be astounding."
Paparella has had outstanding success with early interventions for children with ASD — many as young as 2 years old — in her longtime work as a faculty member at the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment and director of UCLA’s Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program, an internationally recognized treatment program for young children with autism at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
In "More Than Hope," she draws on what she has learned over two decades of cutting-edge research and treatment and distills it into a series of powerful, parent-friendly interventions that target each significant area of developmental difficulty in autism — from language and gestures to social interaction and recognizing facial expressions.
In each area, Paparella explains why children with autism learn and behave differently and provides step-by-step intervention approaches that can be incorporated into everyday activities by parents to help their children develop better communication and social skills and encourage normal behavior.
These teaching strategies, Paparella said, are highly practical and have been proven to work. By offering parents and caregivers the critical knowledge so many of them lack at the outset of an autism diagnosis, she hopes they will feel empowered to intervene early, leading to long-lasting benefits for each child and their family.
An added plus, she noted, is that while children with autism should also engage in therapies with specialists, by using these strategies, families can significantly reduce the financial overhead incurred by relying only on specialists for intervention.
"We don’t yet have all the answers about what causes autism," she said, "but the consensus is that it is a combination of genetics and environmental factors."
UCLA has one of the strongest autism research and treatment programs in the country. Its Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) is one of the National Institutes of Health’s Autism Centers of Excellence (ACE) and was the only ACE center in the nation to recently be awarded renewed funding for the next five years. The funding will support ongoing research focused on examining genes’ link to behavior, developing clinical interventions for those severely affected by the disorder, and explaining why autism affects more boys than girls. The goal of this work is to understand the full range of ASD.
The UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment (CART) conducts research and clinical trials and provides diagnoses, family counseling and treatment for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. It is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA , an interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including the genetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normal behavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.