Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States and more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. According to a recent US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey, 1 in 50 children have been diagnosed with autism. The odds are even greater for boys – five times greater than in girls.
While scientists do not know what causes Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), they do know that autism does not look exactly the same in everyone. There is usually nothing about how a person with autism looks that sets them apart from other people, but they may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most people. Symptoms can vary widely and parents are often left wondering whether their child has any signs of autism. “There’s tremendous diversity in the symptoms and severity of ASDs,” says Dr. Fred R. Volkmar, the director of the Yale Child Study Center. “Sometimes parents have a vision of autism à la ‘Rain Man’ and it won’t correspond to their child, and they’ll think, ‘This can’t be autism.’”
The autism spectrum ranges from very high functioning to characteristics that are very intensive. Despite this range, researchers have been able to identify some common symptoms:
- Development in language and communication – some children with autism are uncomfortable carrying on a conversation or don’t use words and instead will rely on hand gestures.
- Social interaction – children with autism may not seem to know what to do or act uncomfortable in social situations. This can range from avoiding eye contact to problems playing games and interacting with others.
- Unusual repetitive behaviors – children with autism may repeat an unusual behavior, such as lining up toys or body movements like rocking or flicking hands, over and over again for long periods of time. They may prefer this behavior to interacting with people or playing with toys.
- Sensitivity to sensory stimulation – children with autism may have unusual reactions – either no reaction or an over-sensitive reaction – to loud noises, busy rooms, bright lights, etc.
Autism Spectrum Disorders can usually be reliably diagnosed by age 3, however, some signs are visible as early as 18 months and new research is pushing back the age of diagnosis to as early as 6 months. One of the most important things parents and caregivers can do is to learn the signs of autism and become familiar with typical developmental milestones that a child should be reaching. Parents are usually the first to notice unusual behaviors or a child’s delay in reaching developmental milestones such as babbling and talking.
If a parent identifies or becomes concerned about any symptoms in a child, the first step is to alert their pediatrician. A doctor or other trained professional can use a specialized screening to diagnose autism. Although parents may have concerns about labeling a child, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the better the chance for improving a child’s future success. The good news is with early detection, the sooner professionals and parents can work together to equip kids to make sense of the world. Effective early intervention programs focus on developing communication, social skills and behaviors that are age appropriate. In Medina County, the Medina County Board of Developmental Disabilities (MCBDD), Help Me Grow and local school districts work together to provide such programs and learning environments for children diagnosed with autism.