The autism spectrum disorders can often be reliably detected by the age of 3 years, and in some cases as early as 18 months. Studies suggest that many children eventually may be accurately identified by the age of 1 year or even younger. The appearance of any of the warning signs of ASD is reason to have a child evaluated by a professional specializing in these disorders. The autism spectrum disorders, or pervasive developmental disorders, range from a severe form, called autistic disorder, to a milder form, Asperger’s syndrome.
What is autism?
Most infants and young children are very social creatures who need and want contact with others to thrive and grow. They smile, cuddle, laugh, and respond eagerly to games like “peek-a-boo” or hide-and-seek. Occasionally, however, a child does not interact in this expected manner. Instead, the child seems to exist in his or her own world, a place characterized by repetitive routines, odd and peculiar behaviors, problems in communication, and a total lack of social awareness or interest in others. These are characteristics of a developmental disorder called autism.
The severity of autism varies widely, from mild to severe. Some children are very bright and do well in school, although they have problems with school adjustment. They may be able to live independently when they grow up. Other children with autism function at a much lower level. Mental retardation is commonly associated with autism. Occasionally, a child with autism may display an extraordinary talent in art, music, or another specific area.
What are the symptoms of autism?
Some of the early signs and symptoms, which suggest a young child may need further evaluation for autism, include:
- No smiling by six months of age
- No back and forth sharing of sounds, smiles or facial expressions by nine months
- No babbling, pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months
- No single words by 16 months
- No two word phrases by 24 months
- Regression in development
- Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills
Symptoms almost always start before a child is 3 years old. Usually, parents first notice that their toddler has not started talking yet and is not acting like other children the same age. But it is not unusual for a child to start to talk at the same time as other children the same age, then lose his or her language skills. Symptoms of autism include:
- A delay in learning to talk, or not talking at all. A child may seem to be deaf, even though hearing tests are normal.
- Repeated and overused types of behavior, interests, and play. Examples include repeated body rocking, unusual attachments to objects, and getting very upset when routines change.
How is autism diagnosed?
There are guidelines your doctor will use to see if your child has symptoms of autism. The guidelines put symptoms into three categories:
- Social interactions and relationships. For example, a child may have trouble making eye contact. People with autism may have a hard time understanding someone else’s feelings, such as pain or sadness.
- Verbal and nonverbal communication. For example, a child may never speak. Or he or she may often repeat a certain phrase over and over.
- Limited interests in activities or play. For example, younger children often focus on parts of toys rather than playing with the whole toy. Older children and adults may be fascinated by certain topics, like trading cards or license plates.
How is autism treated?
Treatment for autism involves special behavioral training. Behavioral training rewards good behavior (positive reinforcement) to teach children social skills and to teach them how to communicate and how to help themselves, as they grow older. With early treatment, most children with autism learn to relate better to others. They learn to communicate and to help themselves, as they grow older. Depending on the child, treatment may also include such things as speech therapy or physical therapy. Medicine is sometimes used to treat problems such as depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
Take advantage of every kind of help you can find. Talk to your doctor about what help is available where you live. Family, friends, public agencies, and autism organizations are all possible resources.
Remember these tips:
- Plan breaks. Daily demands of caring for a child with autism can take their toll. Planned breaks will help the whole family.
- Get extra help when your child gets older. The teen years can be a very hard time for children with autism.
- Get in touch with other families who have children with autism. You can talk about your problems and share advice with people who will understand.
Raising a child with autism is hard work. But with support and training, your family can learn how to cope.