Babies Can’t Wait Program Gives Children with Autism a Voice of Their Own

March 30, 2015

One in 68 children has a diagnosis of autism nationally, with a Georgia rate of 1 in 64. This week, the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and its partners will stand together in honor of the 8th Annual World Autism Day on April 2.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Those living with ASD may look similar to those around them, but often suffer from impaired social interaction and communications skills. ASD patients also exemplify various learning, thinking, and problem-solving abilities that can range from significantly challenged to gifted.    

Donna Johnson, project director of DPH’s Office of Child Health in the Maternal and Child Health Section, has twin daughters and one has autism. She understands autism as a mother and now as a public health leader at DPH.

When Johnson recognized that her 18-month-old daughter stopped talking and developing at the same rate of her twin sister, Donna consulted with a doctor to explore the different behavioral patterns among her children.

“I knew something was wrong and my daughter’s pediatrician agreed. They referred us to Babies Can’t Wait for an autism evaluation and early intervention services,” said Johnson.

Because of her daughter’s needs, Johnson quit her career as a senior vice president with an insurance company and became a stay-at-home mom. She immersed herself in autism educational resources to learn more about the condition and available social services in Georgia for children living with autism.

“Through Babies Can’t Wait, my daughter received speech language and occupational therapy,” said Johnson. “She was later diagnosed at age 2 at the Marcus Autism Center, a leading authority on diagnosis and treatment of children with autism.”

Many children with autism have difficulty communicating their wants and needs, even if they have verbal communication skills. When children have difficulty communicating, it can result in challenging behaviors.

Johnson remembers when her daughter was 10 years old and was unable to communicate that she was experiencing pain. As a result, she demonstrated aggressive behavior before doctors learned she needed her wisdom teeth removed to alleviate her pain.

“It is crucial to provide children with the tools needed to express their thoughts and feelings,” said Johnson. “We also have to ensure families have the skills to understand, prevent, and replace challenging behaviors with more effective means of communications.”

Families of children with autism can access the Babies Can’t Wait services through DPH’s Children First program, a collaborative system of public health services that identifies and supports children at risk for poor health or developmental delays.

“In the Babies Can’t Wait program, we have identified 150 babies who currently have diagnosis of autism,” said Johnson. “That doesn’t mean there are not others. Children are not usually diagnosed with autism until the age of 2 or older.”

In partnership with the Marcus Autism Center, DPH provides training to early intervention providers in Babies Can’t Wait to increase their ability to identify key indicators of autism. DPH works with the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University to provide Positive Behavior and Visual Supports training to families of children with autism in the Babies Can’t Wait program. The agency also partners with the Emory Autism Center to train psychologists to assess children with autism.

Today, Johnson’s daughter is doing very well at 17 years old. She uses visual supports and a communication device which help her more effectively communicate with family and teachers.

“I know firsthand that the Babies Can’t Wait program and autism intervention services work,” said Johnson. “I’m honored to spend my career advancing the work of a program that has made significant positive impacts on my own life and family.”

To learn more about DPH’s resources to assist families with children with autism, visit Children First or call the Public Health Information Referral Center at 1-855-707-8277.

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