With as many as 1 in 68 children, more boys than girls, being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as autism’s high profile in media of all types, parents of small children are often concerned about whether the disorder may affect their families.
Autism is a developmental disability typified by a combination of communication, behavioral and social-interaction challenges. As a “spectrum” disorder, individuals with autism can have symptoms that range from mild to severe.
While autism is a life-long disorder for individuals, early detection and intervention can mitigate its progress and effects on the person’s life. As a result, the earlier a child is diagnosed and treatment started, the better. Ideally, treatment will begin by 18 months.
Established pediatrician relationship
One of the most important things parents can do when it comes to early detection of autism – or any health concern – is establish a relationship with a primary pediatrician who sees the child for most of his or her well visits. This allows the physician to get to know the family dynamic as well as the patient and pick up on any potential red flags along the way.
For instance, the doctor may notice at the two-month well-baby visit that a child has a lack of significant social eye contact. While not alarming on its own, this can be a sign of concern, so the physician’s radar will go up and he or she will be closely monitoring the child at future well-child visits.
As the child grows, the doctor will assess his or her global development. At each point, if a deficit in social communication or behavior presents itself, the physician will get more focused in his or her concern and potentially refer the family for further evaluation or even treatment. Referrals can happen as early as nine or 12 months, and definitely by 18 months.
Early intervention, even without diagnosis
The most common age for an autism diagnosis now is three or four, and that’s really too late. Birth-to-three programs treat children who are exhibiting signs of autism, and the earlier the intervention begins, the more successful they are in diminishing symptoms.
Because autism has so many facets, diagnosis can sometimes be tricky – particularly before a child is in social situations such as daycare or preschool. Treatment, though, can begin to address certain behaviors even without a diagnosis.
For example, if a child is very sensitive to sensory input and is bothered by seams or tags in clothing or walks on his or her toes, these can be signs of sensory integration dysfunction. This can be a component of autism, but some children have sensory integration concerns without the behavioral and social components that constitute autism.
Still, the child can receive treatment in occupational therapy or speech therapy to address the sensory-integration issues. That treatment needs to happen anyway, and if an autism diagnosis is ultimately made, then the family already has a leg up on intervention.
Five warning signs
Autism comes in many varieties, but there are some general warning signs that doctors and parents can look for:
- Communication deficits such as inappropriate use or interpretation of language.
- Behavioral delays.
- Repetitive behaviors such as hand-wringing or arm-flapping.
- Rigidity in transitions between activities.
- Extreme sensitivity to sensory input/stimulation.
Obviously, if parents have any concerns about their child’s development, they should discuss them with their child’s pediatrician and determine whether further evaluation is appropriate.
Dr. Kaufman is the father of three grown children and has been a pediatrician in Chicago’s northern suburbs for 25 years. In his free time, he is a runner focused on the half-marathon distance. While he treats most pediatric issues, he is passionate about child development and behavior as well as serving uninsured children. He currently treats patients for PediaTrust/Pediatric Associates of Barrington, a new private partnership of seven pediatric practices located in the north and northwest suburbs of Chicago.
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