From the moment you become a parent, you invest a lot of time getting to know your child — you’re learning every little thing that makes your child unique and special. And, by making sure your child attends routine well-child visits, you’re partnering with your pediatrician to make sure your child is meeting developmental milestones, too. This is important because pediatricians are trained to look for early signs of autism and can even provide resources for early autism treatment, says Nanette Pfeiffer, Executive Clinical Director with Key Autism Services.
If you have doubts or concerns about your child’s development, Pfeiffer recommends you consult with your pediatrician, even seeking out a developmental pediatrician if necessary. “Your medical provider is your first step. Remember that you know your child best, and if you think something doesn’t seem right, this may be something you have been observing for months and you may be bringing it up later than you should be. You may have been sitting on your worry for a month or two, just watching your child closely,” Pfeiffer says. “Go with your gut and push forward.”
As intuitive as we are as parents, sometimes it’s hard to recognize in our own child what experts might consider a red flag or a clue to possible autism spectrum disorder. “You spend so much time day in and day out with your child just in the day-to-day grind, so it can be missed,” Pfeiffer explains. “Often we hear that child care providers or close family members or friends who spend time with many children can pick up on a child’s lack of socialization or how they may be engaging in repetitive behaviors.”
A common concern is speech delay, Pfeiffer says. “This is one of the first signs and can be identified as a first red flag if a child isn’t babbling or engaging in echoic behavior as young as under age 1,” she says. “Then, when they are 2 and 3 and should have a handful of words they are regularly engaging with, it’s noticeable if they are not there.”
The absence of eye contact and social interaction are also signs of concern, as well as a lack of joint attention, which Pfeiffer describes as the skill of engaging others in a preferred activity. “An example of this is when a child shows a mom a toy they are enjoying and then looks back and forth from the toy to mom to see if they are paying attention with the intent of shared enjoyment and socialization,” she says.
The importance of diagnosis
If your child displays some or all of these characteristics, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have autism. But it’s important to seek out a professional diagnosis so that your child can receive early autism therapy, including Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, for the best possible outcome.
“It’s really important that children have their well checks because this is the time when you’ll want to share your concerns with your child’s pediatrician — at 12 months, 18 months and at that 2-year visit,” Pfeiffer says. “They will have a standardized screening to track the child’s individual development and milestones. Once you are talking with the pediatrician about your concerns, they’ll be there to help you and coach you because you don’t always know what to look for. They will be instrumental in telling you what to keep an eye on and what resources to reach out to next.”
Seeking out a diagnosis is an important next step.
“Getting a diagnosis is a must because your child will need a diagnosis to gain access to care,” Pfeiffer explains. “If you are seeking ABA therapy, most insurance companies will require an initial diagnosis in order to receive access to care.”
Your pediatrician can make a referral for testing, but be aware that there may be a significant waiting list, and this is a big reason to act quickly rather than wait and hope that your child will catch up developmentally.
Waiting versus pushing forward
Are there any benefits to adopting a “wait and see” course of action? Only in limited circumstances, says Pfeiffer. “We have had families call us when their child is 6 months old because they say they just know their child isn’t developing on pace. So the family may continue to monitor and do exercises to gain eye contact and then bring it up at the child’s 12-month well check. And that’s OK,” she says. But, if your child is 18 months old and you have a list of concerns, including speech delay and repetitive behaviors and excessive tantrums, this is the time to act and bring up your concerns with your pediatrician.
“Once you obtain a diagnosis, it opens up so many doors. Your private insurance kicks in to cover ABA therapy, occupational therapy and speech-language therapy and those can be very costly for a family,” Pfeiffer says. “On the educational side, the diagnosis will allow your child to have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) that gives them supports in school they may not have without a diagnosis. It opens doors for your child to be as successful as they possibly can.”
ABA therapy, based on the science of learning and behavior, is designed to bring positive and meaningful change for children with autism and developmental delays. Research shows that ABA therapy is most effective when started early. “If a child has developmental gaps compared to their same-aged peers at 2 years old and they are 6 months behind, it’s relatively easier for them to catch up. But if that gap has been growing from 18 months to age 7, it takes a lot longer to catch up because there are so many more skills to address and teach,” Pfeiffer says.
Experts often recommend a high number of treatment hours for young learners, and ABA therapists at Key Autism Services analyze the needs of each child individually.
“We’re analyzing areas of need across social, language, motor skills, executive functioning, cognition and play skills to build a whole-picture approach and determine goals and the hours clinically recommended based upon the individual child’s areas of need,” Pfeiffer says.
Parents can expect to see quick gains with ABA therapy because of the intensity of treatment hours recommended, but therapists are mindful to build in breaks and reinforcers for children. Key Autism Services’ Client Care Team works closely with families to determine how services are going and record the gains their child is making.
Regardless of your child’s individual situation, it’s important to have a strong team on your side, Pfeiffer says.
“Research shows the earlier you get started with ABA therapy, the more gains your child will see quickly,” she says. “I’m a huge proponent of ABA therapy and just knowing that you have a team of folks on your side is really important. You need a support system at this time. We don’t want it to be scary because we are here to help and be a support.
Learn more about ABA therapy at Key Autism Services in Norwood Park, Palos Heights and New Lenox, and in-home ABA therapy across Chicagoland. Visit keyautismservices.com.