What every parent should know about autism

Shortly after Selena’s son Zamar was born, she noticed that while he loved to play with his magnet blocks and blow bubbles, he wasn’t making eye contact or reacting to the world around him. Selena decided to speak to a friend who recommended having Zamar screened for autism. That hunch proved correct — after a screening and full evaluation, Zamar was diagnosed with autism at 16 months old. The family then went to a local social services organization that was able to connect Zamar with therapies and supports to target his specific needs.

Zamar is just one of the 1 in 54 children in the U.S. who are affected by autism, according to the CDC. Autism refers to a broad range of conditions that can appear as challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. The autism spectrum is incredibly vast and diverse. Individuals each have a unique set of strengths, challenges, perspectives and experiences. Some people with autism need little or no support and can go on to live independently, while others with more significant challenges may require more consistent, sustained support.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkup. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have been unable to attend regular wellness visits with their child’s pediatrician. Unfortunately, this means fewer opportunities to assess a child’s progress towards key developmental milestones — some of which can reveal signs of autism.

Identifying the early signs of autism as a parent can make a lifetime of difference in helping a child access the best resources to thrive throughout life. In Zamar’s case, that meant making sure he felt he had the support to learn to communicate his needs. To put it simply, an early diagnosis can help a family secure early assistance with improving learning as well as communication and social skills for their young children with autism. Zamar’s language and communication skills are progressing well after his diagnosis, thanks to his services and treatment.

“The earlier a child receives support — whatever their unique set of strengths and challenges — the better their future outcomes can be,” said Dr. Pamela Dixon, director of clinical services and inclusion at Autism Speaks. “We believe in a world where all people with autism can reach their full potential, and early diagnosis is critical to making this a reality.”

If you’re a parent, you probably have questions about autism, such as: How many children are considered to be on the autism spectrum? Why is early diagnosis important? How do I know if my child has autism? Here is some important information to keep in mind!

Facts about autism

An estimated 3 million people in the U.S. and 70 million worldwide are affected by autism. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges.

While autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months, the signs can appear even earlier. Despite this, the average diagnosis for children with autism is 4 years and 3 months. Children in minority and low-income communities, where access to healthcare resources and screenings may be more difficult, are diagnosed even later in life.

Why early diagnosis matters

Autism research clearly shows that early intervention can help children improve their ability to learn, communicate and develop lifelong social skills. It can help parents and caregivers, too: Understanding your child’s autism diagnosis aids parents in developing their relationship with their child, helping them navigate their world so they can better reach their full potential throughout their lifetime. Selena says, “Trust your instincts. You know your child best. Do not wait to see if things change! Get your child tested right away. The sooner the better so therapy can target goals set for your child specifically.”

How is autism diagnosed?

One challenge to diagnosing autism is that one child may not exhibit the same signs as another child. This is why it is important for your child to be seen by a healthcare provider regularly and screened for autism, especially if you have concerns about their behavior or milestones.

Here are some crucial signs:

By 6 months

  • Few or no big smiles or other joyful and engaging expressions
  • Limited or no eye contact

By 9 months

  • Little or no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions

By 12 months

Little or no:

  • Babbling
  • Back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving
  • Response to their name

By 16 months

By 24 months

  • Very few or no meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating)

At any age

  • Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling or social skills
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Persistent preference for solitude
  • Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
  • Delayed language development
  • Persistent repetition of words or phrases
  • Resistance to minor changes in routine or surroundings
  • Restricted interests
  • Repetitive behaviors (flapping, rocking, spinning)
  • Unusual and intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors

If you are recognizing these signs in your child, take the two-minute screening questionnaire at AutismSpeaks.org/screen-autism (for Spanish: AutismSpeaks.org/deteccion-temprana-autismo) that will help determine if a professional should evaluate your child.

The screening questions explore your child’s verbal and non-verbal communication, amongst other behaviors. Examples include:

  • If you point at something across the room, does your child look at it?
  • Is your child interested in other children?
  • Does your child respond when you call his or her name?
  • When you smile at your child, does he or she smile back at you?
  • Does your child get upset by everyday noises?
  • Does your child look you in the eye when you are talking to him or her?

If the screener shows that your child may have a greater chance of having autism — it is not a diagnosis. You should speak with your child’s healthcare provider about getting a full evaluation from a qualified medical specialist such as a neurologist, behavior pediatrician, or psychiatrist, who can provide a diagnosis.

Even after diagnosis, Autism Speaks can help your child: “Once Zamar was diagnosed, the clinic directed me to the ‘100 day kit’ book for newly diagnosed families and young children. It was very informative,” said Selena. “And then I signed up for the newsletters to stay connected and up to date on the latest resources and services. It’s great to have a sense of community for Zamar.”

Learn more about autism at AutismSpeaks.org.

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