Identifying autism: Knowing when and what to look for

Tue, 03/25/2008 - 2:24pm
By: The Citizen

Everyone's talking about autism, and for good reason. According to a 2007 Centers for Disease Control report, one in 150 children in the U.S. has autism, a neurological disorder that affects development and social functioning and can cause even a precocious child to disappear into his or her own self-contained world. Autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the U.S. It is more common than childhood cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.

These statistics are alarming to parents. By arming themselves with knowledge, parents can be prepared to distinguish between behaviors that are typical for a developing child and behaviors that need special attention.

Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means every person with autism is different. At one end of the spectrum, people with Asperger's Disorder have trouble interacting in social environments but can live very independent lives. At the other end of the spectrum, someone diagnosed with Rett's Disorder may need constant care.

How do parents know if their child should be evaluated for autism? There are some significant red flags which may indicate that an evaluation is appropriate. "Parents usually identify concerns between the ages of 18 months to 3 years, although we have seen children as young as 3 months at Fraser," says Pat Pulice, a licensed psychologist and autism services director at Minneapolis-based Fraser, a leading provider of autism services. Below are some signs of autism that parents should know.

* Communication - Children with autism may experience delayed or lack of language development. Their use of words and gestures is unusual. They may use words with no meaning or gesture instead of using words. They may repeat words or phrases in place of responsive, back and forth communication. "A parent who sees a significant regression may want to consider an evaluation at a place like Fraser," says Pulice.

* Social Interaction - Children with autism often spend much of their time alone. They may be less responsive to social cues and interacting with others may be difficult. Often, displaying emotions (laughing, crying) that others d
on't understand is common. They may find it difficult to relate to others and may be unable to make eye contact.
* Sensory Impairment - Children with autism often have sensitivity in sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Parents might notice this if their child starts crying when exposed to bright lights or loud sounds or refuses to eat food of a certain color or texture. Children may also dislike being touched and overreact to pain or not react at all.

* Play - Children with autism may not be able to play with their toys in an imaginative way, instead playing with their toys in odd, unusual ways. They may spin toys or line them up or have an inappropriate attachment to them.

* Behaviors - A child with autism may be overactive or passive, have tantrums, may have no fear of danger, may show aggression and may be resistant to change. They often have repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping that identify their excitement or upset.

"Parents are often the best judges of whether their child is developing normally," says Pulice. If you suspect your child is not developing on schedule, talk to your pediatrician. And always remember a clinical diagnosis is not the end. Types of therapies available include day treatment for children as young as preschool age, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language therapy, music therapy, feeding therapy and social language groups.

"There is hope for children with autism," says Pulice. "At Fraser, we see children learning new skills and improving every day. Many therapies are very effective in helping children to gain skills like verbalization, social interactions and how to calm themselves. What is most important is to identify the needs early and find appropriate treatment. With treatment, children with autism can learn to manage or overcome many of the challenges they face."

For information on autism and other developmental disabilities, visit

Courtesy of ARAcontent

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