'Early intervention is key': New autism screening services coming to Southern Oklahoma
It took three and a half years for Tasha Preston’s son to be diagnosed with autism. Her son didn’t exactly fall into the stereotypical symptoms, but she knew something was different.
After going through her own struggles to try to help her son, and seeing the difference therapy made after he was diagnosed, Preston wanted to help other parents with children on the spectrum get early access to screening and treatment.
“There’s just not the availability in this town to get a diagnosis or to even get a screening,” Preston said, adding that she was put on year-long wait lists. “There was that frustration of knowing that there is something there that I can’t, at the time, couldn’t put my finger on.”
Preston, who is a local psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, said she completed extra training to become certified to diagnose autism and she is now ready to help detect autism in children in the southern Oklahoma area, including Ardmore.
In Sept. of 2020, she began doing home visits as a part of the soft opening of her new business, Oklahoma Integrated Care. Preston said she is working on securing a centralized location and plans to officially open in November.
Preston will be offering screening services such as ADOS-2, which is considered the gold standard of screening, and allows experts to accurately assess and diagnose autism spectrum disorders across age, developmental level and language skills.
“It’s essentially playing with the child while you’re monitoring for characteristics of autism,” Preston said. Most people think of difficulty with communication as a primary characteristic of autism, but characteristics vary widely with each individual child.
Symptoms for autism spectrum disorder and other disorders may also overlap. This makes autism very difficult to diagnose. “They don’t all display the same characteristics, they don’t all display the same behaviors, so it can be very, very difficult,” Preston said.
Some other common characteristics include stimming, which involves the flapping of hands or flicking of fingers as a soothing tool, or repeating phrases they’ve heard on TV or commonly in the house - but like with her son, it’s not always as apparent.
“He’s verbal, he’s affectionate, he’s all of these things that don’t quite scream autism,” Preston said.
Some things were easier than others for her son. At the age of two he learned how to read, but when Preston would try to teach him basic things like washing his hands in the same way she taught his twin brother, who is not autistic, it would be difficult for him.
“I didn’t know exactly how to teach him because you can’t teach him on the same level that you teach a neurotypical child because they don’t learn that way,” Preston said. “I didn’t have to teach him to read but I couldn’t get him to ask me for a cup of water or food, he would just scream at me or throw things at me and I would have to try to guess what he needed.”
After being diagnosed and beginning therapy, her son’s symptoms became much less significant.
“Early screening and diagnosis equals early intervention. I feel like that is key,” Preston said. “We had a lot of success with the therapy that we tried with my son. The success has just been outstanding.”
Screenings are available through pediatricians at annual health check-ups, but are often not done in that setting. Schools also offer screenings, but by the time the children are school age they’ve missed the opportunity to provide early intervention.
“With that delay in the diagnosis, there’s a delay in services, there's delays in intervention and those things are really important for kids on the spectrum,” Preston said.
Children can be screened for autism as early as 18 months, Preston said. She will only be doing screening and diagnosis at Oklahoma Integrated Care. After a child is diagnosed with autism, she will then offer recommendations for what things might benefit that individual child.
Different methods of therapy can help in different ways. For example, ABA, or Applied Behavior Analysis, therapy can be used to increase language and communication skills, as well as improve attention, focus, memory, academic and social skills.
Individuals can make an appointment to have their child screened for autism by contacting Tasha Preston at (580) 504-1517 or firstname.lastname@example.org. A website should be up by the end of October and parents will be able to make appointments there as well.
In the meantime, individuals can visit the Oklahoma Integrated Care Facebook page to find out more information. Preston said she also runs an Ardmore autism support group on Facebook that parents can join to talk about their experiences or ask questions.
“We went so long without those interventions and those years were hard and scary,” Preston said. “I don’t want anyone else to feel as hopeless as I did, because as much as I tried to get him assessed and diagnosed I couldn’t. I just felt completely hopeless.”