Autism symbol

Shaniel Miles is a mother of three children, and now an expert and advocate – by necessity – on autism. Three years ago, when Miles took her then 5-year-old son Geremy for his check-up she was told he was just fine, even though he wasn’t speaking much. The doctor told her, “He’ll catch up. Boys are just slower.”

Later that year, Geremy entered kindergarten. His teachers never complained about him, but they also never let Miles know that Geremy still wasn’t speaking or socializing with classmates. At the end of the school year, Geremy was held back.

“I thought it was so that he could mature a little bit more,” Miles said. “He was doing okay in school. Anything he learned in those early years, he learned because I taught him myself at home. He understood what was going on. We just thought he didn’t like to talk much.”

A year later Geremy entered first grade. When Miles asked about Geremy’s progress, teachers told her that although he was well behaved, he didn’t participate in classroom activities or do classwork. She called for a meeting with his teachers, the principal, the school counselor and school psychologist so she could understand her son’s situation better. Together they all came up with a plan to monitor him more. But after it was implemented and the daily reports came home, Miles got the same news over and over: Geremy wasn’t doing

any classwork and he wouldn’t speak to the teacher. The teachers didn’t offer up any explanation or any solutions.

“Today 1 in 62 African American children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder and those children are frequently misdiagnosed or diagnosed later than other children, which may result in longer and more intensive intervention,” says Dr. Michael Alessandri, executive director of the University of Miami – Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD). “In Geremy’s case, he was 7 years old. His speech delay and tendency to avoid eye contact with adults were early indicators of an autism spectrum disorder. Research shows early identification and family support have long-term benefits for children with autism. Unfortunately, Geremy’s story is all too common.”

School wasn’t much help to Geremy and Miles.

“When the teachers told me that they didn’t have time to work with him individually, I decided there wasn’t any more time left to waste with the school’s bureaucracy, and I made an appointment with a private psychologist,” Miles said.

After the psychologist spent a few sessions with Geremy, and his parents, he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“We were shocked and didn’t know what to think. But at the same time, we were relieved, because the psychologist confirmed what we had suspected. Geremy wasn’t progressing like the other children and he needed help. It took almost two and a half years, to figure it out. But we were determined to help our child and committed to doing what’s necessary to get him all the help he needs to get back on track,” Miles explained.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder, which affects the way the brain develops and processes information. It is characterized by impaired social interactions, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. It is considered a “spectrum” disorder because it varies widely in its specific behaviors and severity from one person to another. Some individuals present with such mild symptoms that the disorder may go largely unnoticed by others.

“Parents, educators and medical professionals all need to be aware of the common and varied indicators of a possible Autism Spectrum Disorder,” Dr. Alessandri said. Some of which include:

• Not responding to their name by 12 months,

• Not pointing at objects to show interest such as toys or airplanes by 14 months,

• Not playing “pretend” games, such as pretending to “feed” a doll by 18 months,

• Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings,

• Repeating words or phrases over and over (echolalia),

• Giving unrelated answers to questions,

• Getting upset by minor changes,

• Having obsessive interests,

• Flapping their hands, rocking their body or spinning in circles,

• Having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel.

“When any of these signs present themselves, it’s always best to speak to a medical professional, and if you’re not comfortable with what your family doctor or pediatrician is telling you, get a second opinion,” said Alessandri. “Symptoms can also vary by age and developmental level, with younger individuals often displaying different symptoms than older individuals. In all cases, individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder or other related conditions can benefit from early and appropriate treatment.

University of Miami – Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities has offices in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties and can help families get a thorough evaluation and proper diagnosis. From there UM-NSU CARD can provide primary services including information, resources, medical referrals and support groups. Additionally, this state-funded program provides training and workshops for parents and educators, as well as public education and awareness activities.

“We want to create a community and provide the information, support and strategies that help individuals with autism and their families succeed in all stages of life,” said Alessandri.

Miles said she finally feels like she is on the right track in knowing what’s possible for her son.

“Soon after Geremy’s diagnosis, we learned about UM-NSU CARD and met with them to learn more about what resources were available for him. We wish we’d know about them earlier in the process. It would have saved us a lot of time and frustration,” said Miles.

Today, 8-year-old Geremy is in second grade and attends a public school in Miami-Dade County that has a specialized program for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, along with specially trained teachers who understand Geremy’s needs and potential.

“He’s thriving and is on the honor roll. We are very proud of him,” said Miles.