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Helping families understand autism

April 01, 2021 | Condition Management

He was three years old when Lisa Fusick-Smith’s son “Dug” was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

She wasn’t completely surprised. “His daycare teacher told us, ‘He's got a lot of delays, compared to some of the other children.’ We wondered what it would mean for us. How it would look for our future.”

Many parents are asking similar questions: Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), its prevalence has risen to 1 in 54 in 2020 — more than twice the 2004 rate of 1 in 125.

Early signs of Autism to track your child's development
  • Speaks later or not at all
  • Shows repetition with language/movement
  • Avoids eye contact, has few facial expressions, monotone voice
  • Prefers solitary play
  • Gets distressed by changes
  • Shows a strong, persistent interest in a specific topic or item

Sources: CDC; The Autism Society of America


Then came COVID-19, presenting interruptions to daily routines that are essential to children with autism. In a recent survey, 64% of caregivers said pandemic changes “severely or moderately impacted” their child’s autism symptoms. Three-quarters of parents felt extreme or moderate stress because of the disruptions.

Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder, explains Gayle Jordan-Randolph, MD, Medical Director for Aetna’s Autism Care Team. It impacts communication and social interaction across multiple settings and is characterized by repetitive behaviors, interests or actions.

The Autism Care Team, which Lisa is also a part of, is comprised of licensed clinical and behavioral professionals trained in autism spectrum disorders treatment. Depending on a member’s plan, services are included as part of Aetna’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) benefit at no additional cost.

“It’s important to recognize that these children have strengths,” says Dr. Jordan-Randolph. “Children with autism grow and develop and reach adulthood and do well.”

Early on, Lisa and her family needed to make changes to their lifestyle. “You learn that routine things like birthday parties, playdates and trips to the dentist are going to be difficult. You might have to bring your own food to parties, or you might need to leave early — and that's OK.”

A wooden table with Lego characters and blocks.
A wooden table with Lego characters and blocks.

She adds that adaptations have been especially important during the pandemic. Fortunately, time at home has also meant more opportunities to appreciate Dug’s unique gifts. Lisa points to his creativity through storytelling. “Even when he was four and barely speaking, Dug would draw pictures and post them. Now, at 13, he makes stop-motion videos.”

April is Autism Awareness Month and for families dealing with a new autism diagnosis Lisa has a message, “Get started as soon as possible to receive assistance. And, be your child's biggest advocate – it’s a wonderful journey.”