April was Autism Awareness Month. With all the controversial political goings-on and the many international issues boiling, it’s no surprise that the media hasen’t paid much attention to autism. But for those families with an affected child, the challenges can be massive and the disruption to life all encompassing.
I’ve always been fascinated by children and how their interactions with the world change as their physical, mental and emotional development unfolds. My college courses in developmental psychology were eye-opening and when supplemented by my pediatrics training in med school, set me up to be awestruck and delighted to watch Kate — and now Rowan and her baby sister Eve — grow, develop skills and evolve distinct personalities and abilities, seemingly hour by hour.
As you watch infants grow and develop, you begin learning about certain developmental guidelines they should reach: when the first tooth should appear, when they will begin pulling themselves up and when they may begin walking, talking, laughing and so much more. Although it’s important to acknowledge that each child is different and will develop on his or her own timeline, the pattern and general timing is important to look for.
Not reaching certain developmental milestones along the way could signal a serious problem, some physical, like hearing or visual problems, and some more mysterious and even controversial, like autism spectrum disorder.
Autism spectrum disorder can pose social, behavioral and communication-related challenges throughout life. It’s a disorder marked by developmental delays like not making eye contact, not wanting to be held or cuddled by a parent, or repeating actions over and over again. The signs of autism typically begin showing when a child is young, and it could be diagnosed when a child is as young as 18 months.
Treating autism early — called early intervention — may help a child develop certain communication and behavioral skills that help them throughout life.
How autism is diagnosed
Autism can’t be diagnosed with a typical medical test, such as a brain scan or a blood work. Instead, your pediatrician will conduct routine screenings to check for a broad range of developmental delays at ages 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months.
Your pediatrician typically will screen specifically for autism spectrum disorder during 18-month and 24-month well child visits.
In addition, your pediatrician may screen for developmental delays if your child is at higher risk for autism spectrum disorder.
If your child has a sibling with autism spectrum disorder or if he or she shows some signs of developmental delay, your doctor may screen for developmental disorders outside of the typical guidelines. That’s why it’s so important for parents to look for any delays.
The power of early intervention
Early intervention services can help children learn skills before age 3. These services include a range of skill development, depending on your child’s specific behavior delays, and could include help developing cognitive, physical, communication, self-help and social and emotional skills.
During early intervention, a specialist may help your child with eating, dressing, communicating, playing, solving problems, crawling or walking.
Research shows that working with children when they are toddlers may help reduce delays and help children “catch up” to their peers.
In one study, researchers tracked 569 children between the time of diagnosis and the start of elementary school. Thirty-eight children showed improvement to the point that the signs of autism had resolved themselves. However, 35 of the children who showed improvement still needed additional special services.
Other small studies have shown improvement in social interaction and IQ.
This research shows that by working with a child whose brain is still developing, we can have a positive impact on skill development; and the earlier we start, the more of an effect we can have.
Parents should discuss their baby’s development with a pediatrician. If your child is not meeting certain milestones, it’s vital to reach out for help, rather than wait until the next routine screening.
If you’re concerned that your child may not be developing normally, it’s important to trust your gut and ask your pediatrician right away. A doctor can screen your child and provide resources and a referral to get your child help sooner than later.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]