Today the word “autism” has become a part of our everyday discussion. What was a rare clinical disorder a generation ago now affects one in 68 children in our country. It seems as though everyone we meet has been touched by this disorder. Whether it be a family member, or someone we know, this condition has become a part of everyone’s lives. Characteristics most notably associated with autism are deficits in communication skills, social interactions, and repetitive patterns of behavior. Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that it does not look the same for everybody. Some individuals have larger deficits such as being unable to communicate, where other individuals may only have trouble handling social situations. While there are many trained professionals that understand autism spectrum disorder and its multifaceted complexities, there are still a number of people who don’t fully understand autism or how to approach autism treatment. As the number of individuals with autism grows, it becomes increasingly more important to discuss what autism is, and bring about awareness so that everybody can learn how to best support those with autism.
Dr. Mark Dixon, a world-known autism researcher, consultant, professor and Seaside homeowner, brought his expertise to 30A last month to enlighten parents, care providers, and community members on best practices in autism treatment. When not enjoying the beaches of 30A and relaxing in his Seaside vacation home, Dixon’s day job entails what is called a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, and he also holds such a license in the state of Missouri.
Behavior analysts use the science of behavior in order to help others achieve successful outcomes and become more independent individuals. Over the past decade, Dixon has developed a specialized form of behavior intervention, or ABA therapy, that targets ways to teach advanced language and cognition to persons with autism. Dixon’s educational curriculum, the PEAK Relational Training System, fuses traditional and contemporary intervention strategies to help promote basic and advanced language and cognitive skills for children with autism. This technology is comprehensive and incorporates skills that many individuals take for granted.
Autism Awareness Month, which is celebrated in April nationally, helps to spread the word about the condition, and seeks inclusion and acceptance for individuals with a diagnosis. Many parents, educators and professionals wear blue shirts and accessories in order to show their support and bring awareness for the need for appropriate and vital services. There are many myths about the causes and cures for autism, which is why awareness surrounding autism spectrum disorder is crucial. Autism awareness month attempts to help individuals better understand the entire spectrum of autism, and how to most appropriately interact with the individuals and their specific needs.
Scientists have determined that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition with its roots in both genetic and environmental factors. While there are many guesses as to why autism is on the rise, so far there is no valid proof for any of them. While countless scientists seek the cause, so far this research has not yielded any definitive answers. While many struggle to determine the reasons why so many people develop autism, others work to find the cure. Not necessarily the actual cure, but rather ways by which those with autism learn, grow and lead satisfying lives in ways that once were seemingly impossible.
Dr. Dixon has seen it all. A young boy with no vocal language skills has recently started to make one word utterances to request items. He has also begun to answer yes or no to questions. Another young girl who had previously only responded to questions by repeating whatever her therapist said began answering questions using her own words. Another boy has started participating in jokes and conversations around the clinic, in his home and at school after working on these skills within Dixon’s PEAK system.
“Dr. Mark’s research is well-known throughout the scientific community. And it was a great opportunity to have him speak here on 30A,” said Megan Miller, the CEO of Navigation Behavioral Consulting, a local agency that provides ABA services to persons with autism in the area. “He is the closest thing to a rock star in our professional society. Hopefully many local residents who have family members with autism can benefit from the training we all learned from.”
Over the course of the daylong seminar, attendees were able to learn both assessment and intervention techniques, role play the skills with each other and get coaching from Dixon himself. “The best thing about my job is being able to bring the science to the front line people who actually care for those impacted by this debilitating condition,” he said. “When we see a child or adult gain new skills in a matter of weeks that they previously did not have, and we are confident it was because of our interventions, that makes the countless hours of research worth it.”
You may stumble across Dixon at various times throughout the year with his two daughters and wife catching a sunset at Bud & Alley’s Restaurant, or maybe grabbling a bite to eat at the Shrimp Shack. Wherever he is, no matter how busy or relaxed, he is always game for conversation about how to help combat autism, and make the world a better place one child at a time.