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Autism: Early signs

My nephew was born into a large extended family filled with great love and hope for his promising future.  He was an easy baby, rarely fussed, and was effortlessly cared for by family and friends.  My sister was grateful for his easy temperament as she attended school and worked hard for both of them. Yet as he grew older, there were marked differences in his development.  Typical developmental milestones were missed and worry about his healthy growth increased. Could he have Autism?  It is a question many more parents are asking these days.

A recent report released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 1:88 children in the United States have been identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a 23% increase since 2009. ASD is also 3-4 times more common in boys than in girls. With more children being diagnosed at earlier ages, a growing number by 3 years old, parents are asking more questions about their own child’s development.  What should they do if they think something doesn’t feel quite right about their child in their early years?

As the mother of two children, I recall recording many of their developmental milestones when they were little: their first smile, first words, first steps or first solid food.  My friends and I would talk about what our children were accomplishing and share articles, websites, and books we had read.  Most challenging were the fears that would creep in, like my sister’s, when it was becoming clearer that something wasn’t quite okay.

As parents we need to be empowered to discuss our concerns when we think something isn’t right with our child. In fact, we should “act early” because early identification and earlier intervention means you can do more to support your child’s healthy development when there is a problem.

Here are some important steps to follow:

  1. Observe your child – Children develop at different rates and there is a range of “typical” development.  Check out the CDC’s website to learn more about developmental milestones.

Some signs of Autism or red flags you may want to take particular note of include:

  1. Social Differences – Your child may not be smiling as you expect or may not cuddle like other children. Eye contact may be elusive and you may not get a response when you call their name.
  2. Language/Communication Differences – Your child may have language delays and is not reaching typical developmental milestone.  For example, not waving “bye-bye” by 12 months, or not using words by 15-16 months.
  3. Regression – Your child may have reached typically developing milestones, but is regressing and “losing” some of the skills they may have had.

It is important to recognize that every child is different and can have different symptoms.  Just because your child may have a red flag does not mean they have Autism.  However, when you identify a concern it does warrant following up with your pediatrician.  Additional information about red flags can be found on the American Academy of Pediatrics website for parents.

  1. Talk to your pediatrician – If you are concerned about your child’s development, discuss your concerns with your child’s doctor, make a list of your concerns, and be specific about what you are observing. This can be helpful to guide the conversation and provide the pediatrician with helpful information to support you and your child.
  1. Get a developmental screening – The American Academy for Pediatrics recommends screening for all children during well child visits at 9 , 18 , and 24 or 30 months.  You don’t have to wait for your well child visit!  If you are concerned, talk to your pediatrician and request a screening.  Parents can also contact their state early intervention service or their local school district to get an evaluation. Early identification is critical to promoting your child’s healthy development and getting the support he or she needs.

It is also important to keep in mind as well that many children with ASD have other kinds of disabilities or conditions. As with all children, each child with an ASD is unique, with his or her own gifts and challenges.  Work and partner with your circle of care, team with the professionals and resource groups at your disposal, and reach out for support when you need it.  An excellent resource for parents beginning to address their child’s special needs is the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.

My sister’s son was diagnosed with Autism as well as mild mental retardation and a type of Fragile X.  She continues to be an amazing mother and advocate for him.  Their journey is still somewhat uncertain with more uncharted territory to navigate.  When I visit my nephew, now 13 years old, we celebrate with him all his accomplishments.  He now reads on a third grade level, he is fascinated with dragons of all kinds, and he loves every member of his family.  He dreams of all of us “living in one big house.”  He brings love and joy to our hearts.  He is an extraordinarily exceptional child with an exceptional family who are supported by friends and professionals who CARE!

Lynette Fraga, Ph.D., Vice President of Early Care and Education and Special Populations, Care.com. Dr. Fraga has been engaged in research, administration, training and practice in early childhood development and mental health.  Throughout her career, she’s worked in the field of special education, subsequently taught young children and later used that foundation to coordinate and direct early childhood programs for the military. Dr. Fraga has designed and provided professional training on a range of topics including general early childhood education, child development, and social and emotional development. She holds a doctorate in Family Studies from Kansas State University.