TODAY   |  April 02, 2014

Expert: ‘We have to do more’ on autism

Dr. Cecelia McCarton, along with Lois and Danny Molina, who have two children with autism, join TODAY on World Autism Awareness Day to chat about the disorder, and what’s driving the increase in statistics.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> today is autism awareness day and we're proud to be wearing our blue this morning. new data from the cdc finds 1 in 68 children is now living with the disorder. a 30% increase just from two years ago.

>> what is driving this increase? and where do we stand with research and treatment? the ceo and founder of the mcharten center, and lois and danny have two children with autism daniel and chloe featured on the cover of this month's "parents" magazine. good morning. dr. mcmartin, let me start with you. 1 in 68 children. are we starting to see? is this a public health crisis we're dealing with?

>> i think it's being recognized as that. although, it's been this way for a long time. the numbers have been increasing continuously over the past 10 or 15 years. but this should be something certainly that alerts them. if it's a public crisis, though, we need to do more. and that's really the problem. we have to do more in terms of identifying the children, and we have to do more in terms of giving them interventions, the proper therapies they need.

>> we have seen incredible leaps in these percentages year to year. is this because we're more aware of it because a parent looks at a child and knows about autism and can go to the doctor and say we think this might be the problem?

>> i think there's been a huge public awareness about what is autism. the media has sparked this. there's educational programs, doctors recognize it more, teachers in school, nursery school teachers. i think that's a big part of it. also, though, i think that years ago there were children who we didn't understand had this syndrome, and we identified them in other kinds of ways. so they may have been intellectually challenged or they may have been having emotional problems. and now we understand that their kinds of symptoms fit into this package we call autism.

>> because it is such a wide spectrum now. there's so many varying degrees.

>> yeah.

>> exactly. and speaking of that, as danny and lois as we mentioned 2 of your 3 children have autism. what are some of the greatest challenges for you all as parents?

>> for us, it's been communication since daniel, my 5-year-old is nonverbal and chloe has -- since january is beginning to gain words. but her verbal skills are still limited. so just how to communicate better with them and how to know what's going on with them, if they're sick, hungry. what we use at home, we have visual aids at home, we reach out to their teacher and therapist to better bridge what they're doing at school to doing it at home so there won't be that type of shock to their system once they're home.

>> when did the disorder become apparent to you in each of your children? when did you know something wasn't quite right?

>> when they were around 2 years old and they were interacting or playing, you know, with other kids or not really speaking and, you know, stuff like that.

>> how have you dealt with that emotionally as a father?

>> it was very tough. especially with a boy, you know.

>> yeah.

>> i want that communication, that bond. my daughter at least she's speaking now. my son, i would like him to say i love you or talk one day. and i hope that day comes.

>> it's rough.

>> we just take it one day at a time.

>> i see how hard it is. but you all have been so great with intervention and getting treatment to your kids so they can have the tools they need. and dr. mcmartin, going back to the research, we're finding now that scientists have found they can identify autism in children early on while they're still in utero. is that right? as their brains are developing?

>> that was the study that just came out last week, and it's very exciting. but i think even the main authors of that study say now the obligation is really, first of all, to find some way of identifying them and then, of course, moving in very, very quickly with intervention. because if we know this is occurring in the prenatal period, then we can intervene earlier.

>> lois , you've been in this fight for several years now, what would you say to a parent watching who is just beginning it?

>> just continue to fight. fight for thes services, fight for everything that you can. because they're worth it.

>> and there are really good intervention programs, for the most part.

>> they do.

>> you have to know about getting them.

>> and you really have to advocate as these parents have done.

>> and we see how hard it is. yet, you guys are such an incredible couple and an example of --

>> and a beautiful family. three beautiful children.

>> you do.

>> thank you for sharing your story with us.

>> dr. mcmartin, lois and danny .