Early Intervention for Autism is Crucial
Autism, a developmental disorder characterized by social and communication difficulties, is typically diagnosed during childhood. While the cause of autism remains a mystery, doctors now know that early treatment makes a dramatic difference in long-term outcomes.
"Without question, early intervention is key. It helps children with autism improve their speech and their social skills as older kids and adults," says Lisa Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Franciscan Physician Network Crown Point Pediatric Health Center.
Signs of Autism
It's important for parents to know the early warning signs since one out of 68 children is diagnosed with autism. Being able to spot autism signs early – and get the appropriate treatment – can help your child lead a more normal life.
Ask yourself, does my baby or toddler:
- Make eye contact?
- Smile and laugh?
- Look up or respond to his name?
- Babble or point in an effort to communicate?
Ask yourself, does my older child:
- Withdraw from physical affection?
- Lack interest in being with other kids?
- Become fixated on a small part of an object?
- Need things lined up or arranged in a certain order?
- Show repetitive behavior like flapping hands or twirling objects?
Children receive a diagnosis of autism around four years of age, on average. However, doctors can identify the condition as early as two years old. "We are striving to diagnose the patient as soon as a physician or parent feels there are warning signs for it. The sooner the better," says Dr. Gold.
Pediatricians perform an autism screening at the nine-month wellness visit. This involves asking questions and having a discussion with parents about their child’s development. At the 18-month or two-year exam, pediatricians provide a more in-depth autism screening. Usually this involves parents completing a questionnaire about their child.
Dr. Gold urges parents to let their pediatrician know if they sense something is wrong. "We only spend 10 to 15 minutes with a child during a well-child visit. So if parents feel their child is exhibiting symptoms of autism, it's important for them to share their concerns with their child's pediatrician right away."
If your doctor thinks your child may have autism, he/she may refer your child to a specialist. Medical providers involved in the evaluation process may include a behavioral pediatrician, pediatric neurologist and/or a psychologist.
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the number of symptoms and their severity can vary. A child with several autistic symptoms is likely to be diagnosed earlier. But a diagnosis could be delayed if:
- A parent doesn't bring up concerns
- The child doesn't meet all the criteria of an autism screening
- The child isn’t referred for further evaluation at the beginning of one symptom
- It takes a culmination of less-obvious symptoms to point to autism
Treatment for Autism
Starting intensive pediatric physical therapy can help children make significant progress. They can learn how to speak, make eye contact and engage with others. Treatment for autism may include:
- Speech therapy
- Developmental therapy
- Applied behavior analysis therapy
Starting these therapies early can make a dramatic difference in a child's ability to lead a healthy and successful life. Take one of Dr. Gold's own patients, for example. "I have a patient who is a teenager now who was diagnosed at an early age. She still has some symptoms, but she's in mainstream school and is doing well," says Dr. Gold. "To see how she was in her early childhood years compared to how she is as a teenager, it is amazing. And I know it is because of the early therapies she received."
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- Centers for Disease Control – autism statistics: https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p0327-autism-spectrum-disorder.html
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development – definition of spectrum disorder: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/Pages/symptoms.aspx