Professor researches help for autistic children

Junette Reyes/Staff Writer 

April is National Autism Awareness Month. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention approximates the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders to be 1 out of 88 in children. Autism spectrum disorders can be diagnosed as early as 18-24 months after birth; unfortunately, services in the nation’s school systems are not provided until children are at least 3 years old.

Dr. Anibal Gutierrez, assistant professor of the Department of Psychology and certified behavior analyst, is working on a program known as the Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention Program that can change this by advocating early identification and intervention of the disorder.

As a behavioral analyst certified by the Behavioral Analyst Certification Board, Gutierrez is able to design and supervise behavior analytic interventions, such as the one implemented in his work.

Gutierrez said that there is a program available before school system services, known as the Birth to Three System, but funding is typically low, and by extension, the depth of the services.

“We thought that we would set up this program to be a low-cost option; it is $500 a month, which at the hourly rate for intervention is incredibly inexpensive,” said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez said that autism spectrum disorders are characterized by symptoms of impaired social interaction, restricted interest and repetitive behaviors whose manifestations can vary, such as rocking and hand flapping. Meeting criterion for diagnosis can differentiate from person to person, which is why the early intervention program works on many aspects of the disorder.

“We work on all the domain areas that they need help with: communication, expressive language, receptive language, play skills, self-care, toilet training, picky eating if they have eating restrictions or if they don’t have a very wide array of foods that they’ll eat, and independence,” said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez said the program acts as a preparatory step for the child before entering a school program.

“Our classroom attempts to look like the next setting so we’ll have areas for independent work systems, areas for play, and areas for one-on-one teacher time,” said Gutierrez.

The program takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. There is a 1-1 staff to child ratio and the staff is completely made up of undergraduate and graduate students from FIU.

“The ability for students to gain meaningful clinical and research experience in autism exists at FIU; that’s kind of exciting because not everyone has that,” said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez said there are differing views in terms of what aspects of the disorder should be emphasized: discovering causation and cures or working on clinical work and interventions.

His research with the Behavior Analysis Autism Research Lab at FIU is driven by developing and improving procedures used in clinical work.

“My research isn’t about causes or cures, my research is about interventions and just helping people today get better services and better interventions,” said Gutierrez.

Gutierrez said the autism community shows interest in both and agrees that there should be an equal combination of the two.

Although there may not be a definitive answer for causation, the controversial linkage between vaccinations and autism has at least been disproven as reported by a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics on March 29.

Gutierrez said that the 18-24 month mark is the point in development in which typically developing children can be differentiated from those with autism. This differentiation was associated to the number of vaccines children get around this time, which provoked fear in people.

“I know there are families who are not giving their kids vaccines and now they’re at risk for developing these conditions that we kind of had eradicated many years ago; now there are kids dying from these other really awful things,” said Gutierrez.

In regards to its awareness, Gutierrez said the autism community certainly knows more than they used to and that it is an issue people are conscious of but it still has not received a federal mandate for insurance coverage.

“It’s crazy to think that you can have a condition that isn’t covered by your insurance,” said Gutierrez. “When you stop to think about it, as big as autism is and as aware as we are, it’s probably not anywhere close to where it should be given how many cases there are and given how much it affects people’s lives.”