Autism, Asperger only two mental health issues children have

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on mental health in Sherburne County.)

by Bob Grawey

Staff writer

Children’s mental health cases in Sherburne County spiked in the last half of 2010, according to a report issued to Sherburne County commissioners April 12.

In July 2010 the number of children served in the county increased by just eight cases from the previous year. Four months later, though, the number of children seen for mental health disorders stood at 160 cases, up 28 children from the previous year during November.

In 1998 Sherburne County saw just two child mental health cases.

Mary Jo Cobb is the county’s mental health supervisor and says the biggest jump in the number of children seen in her department is the result of earlier diagnosis for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Asperger Syndrome.

“Kids are getting these diagnoses at an earlier age,” Cobb notes. “We hardly ever diagnosed autism 15 years ago, but now it is very common.”

This trend in earlier diagnosis for these two mental health disorders is in part due to a sharper focus in early education. This paradigm shift is meant to get children the help they need before they are pinned with a “bad kid” label, Cobb explains.

She adds there are many differing opinions as to why there is so much growth in the number of children receiving ASD and Asperger diagnosis. The bottom line, though, is that these are kids who need help and the county must step in to meet that growing need.

Parents get helped as well, in understanding their child’s disorder and how to help them manage it.

A child with a mental health disorder might appear as though he or she is simply pitching a fit in the store when they do not get something they want, such as a candy bar. Cobb says, however, that this “normal looking” child is not the result of bad parenting, but the child’s inability to cope with not getting a desired result.

In fact, that public display can get much worse later on.

“If the parents are faced with this situation,” Cobb says, “they might feel if they don’t give in to their child, the behavior could escalate into disaster at home over the next two days. It might even end up with a stay in the hospital (for the child).”

Autism and Asperger Syndrome are only two mental health disorders that cause children to feel challenged, though.

Cobb says Sherburne County sees a lot of kids with depression and anxiety issues, as well as children who suffer from post traumatic stress disorders after being exposed to violence and/or abuse.

Also in the mix of children’s mental health disorders are kids who have what Cobb terms as reactive attachment disorder. These are children who have never formed an attachment to their parent(s) due to either parent neglect or that the child was handed off to so many different people when they were very young, that a bond never formed between parent and child.

“If a kid can have a strong bond in these first few years and feel safe,” Cobb contends, “they have something to build on. But if they’ve never had that, they really struggle their whole lives.”

Some of the worst cases, she says, are with children who were abused or neglected before they were 2 years old.

Even though kids in these cases likely have no conscious memories of actual events in their neglect or abuse, they are unable to trust adults. Consequently, it is also hard for them to form positive relationships with anyone.

Children get removed from unhealthy home environments when chronic neglect is involved, or if physical or sexual abuse to the child is a factor. Cobb says verbal abuse, on the other hand, is very hard to prove, though it can also leave deep scars.

These types of neglect and abuse can cause anxiety, depression and anger in children. Cobb says misbehavior can be the result, as kids are not yet equipped to deal with their emotions or even know what they are feeling.

Sometimes abuse to children does not show up for years, the mental health supervisor says. Behaviors reflecting those earlier abuses or neglect many times surface as children are adopted after having been removed from their biological parent’s home.

“We see a number of people who have adopted, and are quite aware of the issues their child has,” Cobb asserts. “They think, ‘If I can care for this child, provide a good home, and love them, I will be able to nurture them out of this.’ But it really takes a huge commitment and it can be very difficult.”

A child carrying a lot of hurt and distrust is often ill equipped to see or receive the well- intended goodwill of their adoptive parents due to earlier abuse or neglect.

Cobb says the hardest kids to work with are those who have reactive detachment and kids who suffer from post traumatic disorder because their need is so great.

Sherburne County offers many services to help these kids and others with mental health disorders. It starts, though, with getting them in a safe environment and helping those caring for them to understand the nature of the child’s disorder.

It also means getting the proper resources into the hands of the child’s caregiver, as well as helping them cope with their child’s disorder.

“If you have a child who doesn’t sleep very much or gets into a lot of stuff, someone has to be awake to supervise,” Cobb says. “There’s a lot of energy that is spent taking care of a child with a mental health disorder.”

Sherburne County offers respite care for parents who are often worn out from caring for a child with mental health challenges. Cobb says these parents can get a weekend off where their child is placed with either another relative, a close friend or in foster care for the weekend. It gives the child and the parents a much-needed break.

A lot has been done to remove the stigma of having a child with a mental health disorder, Cobb says, which means more people are willing to get help.

Drug commercials on television have helped, too, she adds, as people are now much more aware of mental health disorders and that help is available. Cobb cautions, though, that most often it takes more than a “magic pill” to effectively treat mental health issues.

It is an awareness an increasing number of people seem to be having as seen by the increased cases the county is taking for both children and adult mental health care.

To get more information on children’s mental health disorders or if someone suspects their child might need to be assessed, call Sherburne County Health & Human Services at 763-241-2600 and ask for children’s mental health services.


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