Why No One Can Predict How Far an Autistic Child Will Progress

What Is Autism Reality?.

If you're anything like me, you pride yourself on your ability to face reality, cope with challenges, and find the positive -- even in difficult situations.  When it comes to autism, you probably want to do exactly the same thing.  "Tell it to me straight, Doc," you want to say.  "Will my child ever learn to talk?  Will he make friends?  Will he graduate from school, hold a job, build relationships?"  After all, you may feel, even a negative prognosis will help you to support your child's challenges and plan for his future.

With other conditions, you're likely to get at least a qualified response.  Perhaps you'll hear "there's a 60% likelihood of such and such an outcome," or "prepare yourself for the probability that X will occur."

With autism, however, there's no really good way to predict outcomes.  Your child's doctor can't, in good faith, tell you much at all about what your child can or will be able to do -- particularly when your child is very young. Doctors have no reliable tools for ascertaining whether a child will improve slightly, significantly, or a great deal -- and no tools at all for determining which of various possible therapies or educational settings will be most effective for any given individual.

As a result, your realistic conversation may go something like this:

- Will she learn to talk?
- Maybe.  Lots of children with autism do learn to talk later than normal.

- Will he graduate from high school?
- Hard to know.  Some kids with autism do very well in school, but others don't.

- Will XYZ therapy be helpful for my child?
- Well, it has a good reputation and can't hurt -- why not give it a try! 

As your child gets older, some aspects of his or her future become clearer.  A child who hasn't learned to speak by age six or seven is unlikely to develop typical spoken language.  A child who has very severe learning disabilities will find it difficult or impossible to keep up in a typical classroom.  But even these "realities" can change as your child learns and grows. The kindergartener who succeeds in an inclusive classroom may find it impossible to manage upper elementary expectations, while the impossible-to-manage preschooler may mature into a capable student.

Perhaps even trickier to predict is whether and to what degree your child will manage sensory issues which are a part of autism. Some young children are exquisitely sensitive to sound, light, or smell -- but become increasingly less sensitive over time. Some people retain exactly the same levels of sensitivity but find the tools to manage their challenges. But some people never really learn to cope with any significant sensory "assaults," making it impossible to respond typically to school bells, honking horns, fluorescent lights, or other ordinary sights and sounds of modern life.  This means that a  person with a high IQ and serious sensory issues may find it more difficult to cope with school and work than an individual with a lower IQ and a greater ability to manage sensory challenges.

With so little useful information to build on, it becomes extremely difficult to "face reality."  In fact, by accepting certain limitations early in your child's life, you may be limiting their opportunities to overcome those limitations.  By the same token, the parent who assumes their young child will hop, skip, and jump past autistic challenges may be in for an unpleasant surprise.

Bottom line, parents facing the reality of autism are stuck in the uncomfortable but very real position of having to take life as it comes.

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