By Catherine Trapani, Ph.D.
Media coverage has heightened awareness of autism. Consequently, novice and seasoned parents alike are increasingly vigilant about their children’s development. While some children meet motor, language, and social milestones according to schedule, others are slow to demonstrate the skills that parents anticipate. Sometimes, there is a fine line between children who are developing normally, and children who are exhibiting developmental delays.
So here’s a word of caution.
The cause of autism in not yet known. It affects each child differently. Some children are mildly affected while others experience severe symptoms. Therefore, autism is considered to be a spectrum of disorders.
According to the CDC, currently, one in 150 children is diagnosed with autism. Identifying one in 94 males, boys are four times more likely than girls to be on the autism spectrum. Despite the strides that geneticists have made in identifying genetic markers, there is no medical “test” for autism. Diagnoses are based on the presence or absence of behaviors as reported by parents and observed by clinicians.
During clinical interviews, many parents report that they were concerned early on about their child. Often, they were encouraged to wait for the child’s skills to improve with time. What should parents be looking for? There are a few “red flags,” related to the absence or limited use of certain critical skills. Some examples of warning signs parents should look for are:
• Not using social smiles or joyful expressions by six months or eye contact when their name is called by twelve months
• Not using back-and-forth sharing of sounds, facial expressions or face-to-face play by nine months
• Not using gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving or playing social games by 12 months
• Not using independent two-word meaningful phrases by 24 months and not following 2-to-3 step directions at three years.
• Presenting a loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age
Pediatricians are now screening children for autism at the two-year well-baby visit. However, parents should consult their pediatrician with concerns at any time. They will either learn that all is well or that further assessment is needed.
Although there is no cure for autism, it may be treated through a combination of educational and behavioral interventions combined with medication and other therapies. Children benefit when they receive intervention services as soon as they are diagnosed. Early intervention focuses on developing communication, social, and cognitive skills. It can be effective in avoiding the emergence of difficult behaviors. Parents are encouraged to be knowledgeable about the therapies available. You can always choose to be active in organizations researching the disorder.
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