Many parents find themselves in the difficult and sometimes heart-wrenching position of asking, "Does my child have autism?" Coming to the realization that your child may be autistic is the first hurdle in a long race. Finding the appropriate care for your child is the next.
Recently, you may have been hearing a lot about autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD). April is Autism Awareness Month and World Autism Awareness Day was on April 2. As we wrap up the month of April, we should continue to be aware of the symptoms of autism each and every day. According to organization Autism Speaks, one in 110 children is diagnosed with autism. Among boys, it is 1 in 70.
What is Autism?
The Centers for Disease Control describes ASD as "a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. People with ASDs handle information in their brain differently than other people."
Spectrum disorders refers to the fact that some individuals may have similar symptoms but there can be dramatic variation as to when symptoms start, the severity of symptoms and the nature of these symptoms can fall within a broad spectrum. According to the CDC, there are three types of disorders: Autistic Disorder or classic autism, Asperger Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified or atypical autism.
What Symptoms Should Parents Look For?
This is a tough question because, as indicated by the CDC's description, the array of symptoms is broad. Symptoms may seem vague and can vary. As Chatham resident Eileen Ruggiero indicated in her recent , "autism affects EACH person uniquely" and it "is a puzzle with many missing pieces."
The Centers for Disease Control lists a number of "Possible Red Flags" for parents to be aware of. The list below is a direct quote from CDC.gov:
"A person with an ASD might:
- Not respond to their name by 12 months of age
- Not point at objects to show interest (point at an airplane flying over) by 14 months
- Not play "pretend" games (pretend to "feed" a doll) by 18 months
- Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
- Have trouble understanding other people's feelings or talking about their own feelings
- Have delayed speech and language skills
- Repeat words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
- Give unrelated answers to questions
- Get upset by minor changes
- Have obsessive interests
- Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
- Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel"
Keep in mind that these symptoms can be present in an individual who does not have autism but they could be a possible indication.
A child with an ASD may have some level of difficulty with their communication and social skills. Maybe you see behaviors like repetitive movements or lining up objects. Temper tantrums and unusual emotional reactions or habits can be common symptoms as well.
The symptoms and examples above paint a very broad view of autism spectrum disorder. Please check out the following link created by the CDC - Learn The Signs. Act Early. for many more specific details.
What do you do if you suspect your child is autistic?
If you suspect your child is autistic, voice your concerns to your doctor immediately. The earlier, the better. Chatham pediatrician, Dr. Jennifer Shaw-Brachfeld of Touchpoint Pediatrics, says, "trust your parent intuition" and ask your doctor, "How do you screen for autism?" You and your doctor should talk about utilizing M-Chat (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) as a screening tool for autism.
There may be some doctors who advise a wait and see approach. If this is the case, again, listen to your intuition. With a wait and see approach, precious time could be lost. Shaw-Brachfeld suggests that you "call Special Health Services for New Jersey" to have your child evaluated if your doctor is not appropriately addressing your concerns. They will come into your home and assess your child's developmental risk. This is a service that "is available to everyone", according to Shaw-Brachfeld.
Why is it so important to act early?
The "younger the better" states Dr. Shaw-Brachfeld, who recommends that parents take a look at the work being done by Sandra Harris, Professor Emeritus, at Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center (DDDC) at Rutgers University.
According to the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center's website, with regard to autistic "learners" there is "substantial research documenting the effectiveness of using ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) with young children."
The DDDC has an Early Intervention Program that "provides early and intensive intervention" using ABA in their "home-based programs for learners under 3 years of age and their families." The DDDC's "experience demonstrates that most learners benefit from the approach and show meaningful changes in behavior."
Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics "strongly believes in the importance of early and continuous surveillance and screening" for autism spectrum disorders "to ensure that children are identified and receive access to services as soon as possible. The sooner an ASD is identified, the sooner an intervention program can start."
Support of Family and Friends Can be Critical
If you know of a child who is displaying symptoms of autism and are looking for some tips on approaching this child's parents, please see this link - FirstSigns.org - Parent to Parent.
Though tremendously difficult, family and friends should have a conversation with any parents who may not be familiar with the fact that the signs and symptoms their child is displaying may point to autism. Maybe these parents do already know something is wrong and just need the support of a trusted, loved one to help them take the next step.
While there is no cure or vaccine for autism spectrum disorders, acting early gives an autistic child a better chance at receiving appropriate therapy and care that may improve their behavior. As a concerned Chatham parent, do your own research, know the signs and trust your instincts. Be your child's advocate and voice. They are depending on you.
Local Resources and Support Groups for Chatham Parents:
Resource Recommendations from Dr. Jennifer Shaw-Brachfeld:
The Uncommon Thread - Stirling, NJ
Child's Play Theraputics - Warren, NJ
Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center - Rutgers University