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Air Force offers hope for families of children with autism

Raising a child with autism is a challenge for any family, especially for military families. The Air Force offers programs to help families cope with the frequent moves, deployments and other disruptions of military life, and therapies that can bring hope to parents that their child will reach their full potential. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Josh Mahler)

Raising a child with autism is a challenge for any family, especially for military families. The Air Force offers programs to help families cope with the frequent moves, deployments and other disruptions of military life, and therapies that can bring hope to parents that their child will reach their full potential. (U.S. Air Force graphic by Josh Mahler)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Raising a child with autism is always a challenge, especially in the military. The Air Force offers many resources to help families face these challenges, and hope that children with autism can reach their full potential.

As many as one in 68 children born in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder. Autism is a developmental disorder that affects the nervous system and impairs the ability to interact and communicate with others. Symptoms vary depending on the case, and it usually begins in early childhood.

There is no cure for autism. However, the right therapy can improve the long-term communication, behavioral and education effects of autism, says Lt. Col. Jason Gerber, the developmental pediatrics consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General.

“For many years, there was little effective therapy for children with autism. Parents cared for their children as best they could,” said Gerber. “It used to be that an autism diagnose was a devastating discussion for me to have with a parent. It is still a life-changing diagnosis for the family, but now we can offer them hope of improved communication, social skills, and behavior.”

Several evidence-based therapies are available to help children with autism, notably Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA treatment for autistic children is intensive, one-on-one therapy that seeks to improve the child’s behavior by manipulating their environment. The therapy is highly adaptable, with each child getting an individualized treatment plan.

“The best treatment for children with autism is a multidisciplinary approach,” said Gerber. That includes occupational therapy to work on adaptive and sensory processing skills, speech therapy to work on communication skills, intensive behavior therapy like ABA, and educational interventions through the local school system.”

Because of the comprehensive nature of these interventions, Air Force military treatment facilities refer patients with Autism to the TRICARE network for treatment. In particular, ABA therapy is available through TRICARE’s Comprehensive Autism Care Demonstration.

“The Military Health System has been a trendsetter in evidence-based treatment of autism,” Lt. Col. Eric Flake, an Air Force developmental pediatrician stationed at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington. “The medical benefit for children with autism is one of best in the country. It continues to support new innovations to help families who have children with autism.”

This ongoing assessment of the program is critical, because military families with an autistic child face many additional challenges.

“Life in the military amplifies many of the challenges of parenthood,” said Gerber. “This is doubly true for families with an autistic child. The biggest issues are probably the frequency of moves and the added stress when a parent deploys.”

Moves uproot families. The need to seek out a new support system, establish new relationships with doctors and therapists, and navigate all the complexities of resuming therapy and coverage.

“It can take months or even years for a family to reestablish a good rhythm of treatment for autistic children,” Flake. “There is a great deal of variability in local community support services.”

Families with autistic children should contact the Exceptional Family Member Program at their base to begin to get help with these services.

“Family resource coordinators are important for families with an autistic child,” said Flake. “They help identify resources and provide case management services. These are critical in the handoff from one MTF to another, helping to mitigate the effects of transitions when families move.”

Flake and Gerber both encouraged parents to connect with local resources as well. Schools, public resource centers, and support groups can all help families adjust to new circumstances.

“A big part of my job is teaching parents to be effective advocates for their child,” said Gerber. “We empower them with the skills to research and network to find the services to support their child.

“One of the most rewarding parts of my job is helping parents see the potential in their children. When they see all the great things their kids can do, and enjoy doing those things together, we know that the interventions and resources have made a real difference in their lives. When Airmen know their family is taken care of, it improves their ability to complete the mission.”