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Battling Autism by the Book

April 22, 2010 By:
Rita Charleston, JE Feature
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For James Coplan, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician with decades of experience as a clinician and a researcher, it all began many years ago, when his younger sister was diagnosed with mental retardation.

"I remember how it upset me when we would take her to visit my great-grandpa Joe in a Jewish home for the aged. He was blind, and when he bounced my kid sister on his knee, he kept asking in his thickly accented English: 'Why doesn't she talk? Why doesn't she talk?' "

It was that experience so long ago that led him to do research in pediatrics in the field of early language development.

"I was not consciously aware of that connection until 10 years later, when someone asked me how I became interested in this field, and suddenly, I remembered great-grandpa Joe," he says. "Even before I realized it, my course in life was already set."

Today, that course finds Coplan immersed in the field of autism. Coplan, who has been caring for children with special needs since 1977, is an award-winning educator, published author and medical scientist, as well as a sought-after speaker in several areas, including autistic spectrum disorders, known as ASD.

His book on the subject (just released, and especially appropriate now since April is National Autism Awareness Month) is Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Create the Brightest Future for Your Child With the Best Treatment Options.

What the author attempts to do is bring the issue down to its most basic level of understanding.

Coplan, who trained at New York Medical College and at Johns Hopkins University, directed resident training in child development for 20 years at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, N.Y. He followed that with an appointment at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and is now in private practice in Rosemont, where this member of Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley specializes in the assessment of children with ASD.

ASD is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges, explains Coplan, and is typically evident in the first three years of a child's life. Symptoms can range from very mild to severe.

ASD occurs in individuals in all racial, ethnic and social groups, and is four times more likely to strike boys than girls.

"We have seen children who are completely nonverbal, who never acquire verbal speech, and then we have children who are highly verbal," he states. "So there's a huge variance."

"But parents still need answers -- a reason why, how, when and where their child developed this condition," Coplan says, citing one of the reasons for his book.

It also, he says, "demystifies -- once and for all -- the argument that vaccines are a major contributor to the current ASD explosion."

In fact, he adds, the journal that originally developed the theory has formally retracted the statement.

Although the experts still do not have all the answers, it is clear that early intervention is important, he adds. And parents are the ones who can offer that to their child.

Coplan remembers a mother who came to him when her child was 3 years old. He was making the diagnosis of autism for the first time.

"She said she knew the moment they brought him to her in the delivery room and put him in her arms that something was wrong, but she just couldn't put her finger on it," he says. "She breast-fed the baby for nine months, and for those entire nine months, he never once looked up at her."

'In Their Own Little World'

In his book, Coplan says that's one of the telltale signs of autism: "Children make no eye contact, they live in their own little world, and suffer from poor language and social skills, as well as other behavioral issues."

His book also offers a description of the leading intervention programs and which children they benefit the most, and advises on how state-of-the-art medications can help in certain situations. He also maintains that some children will mature out of the autistic spectrum entirely, while others will need long-term care.

If you plan on seeking a therapist, then Coplan strongly urges parents to read the sections in his book that offer those options.

"I don't provide any form of therapy myself, nor do I get any kind of financial compensation by any therapy provided. But the first thing to be aware of is the money," he cautions.

"In other words, find out who this therapy has actually helped, and what are the side effects in a biomedical sense. As our parents always advised us, use your common sense. Ask questions and keep a tight grip on your wallet.

"If something doesn't feel right," he emphasizes, "it probably isn't."

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