I thought that autism was a “big kid” issue; not something parents and doctors discovered or diagnosed until children went to school. It turns out that this complex developmental disorder appears within the first three years of life and can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. There are clues that parents can look for, too.
April is National Autism Awareness Month and I posed a few questions to Dr. Aoife Lyons, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. She also has a great Links page on her website for parents to research everything from autism to child depression to learning disabilities. One local resource is the Autism Society of Illinois. Autism Speaks, a national organization, also lists warning signs here.
What is the difference between Autism, Asperger’s Disorder and a Nonverbal Learning Disability?
All of these disorders are considered to be on the spectrum of Autism. On a scale of 1-10 of severity, children with Autism would be at the high level of severity (a 10), Asperger’s disorder would be about 4-5 and a Nonverbal Learning Disability would fall at a 2-3. All children who are diagnosed with a spectrum disorder have some delay in social reciprocity and perspective talking.
When can Autism be diagnosed? And what are some early warning signs?
Autism can be diagnosed as early as 18 months old. It is around this age that children’s communication abilities are rapidly developing. Child psychologists have a number of neuropsychological tests that can be administered to very young children. Difficulty with eye contact and joint attention (when a parent and child make eye contact and show a joint attention in an interesting object i.e. a toy, bright light etc.) are two areas that child psychologists evaluate in a young child. In addition, children with early autism may have particular difficulty with transitions, bedtime and certain sensory stimulation.
Often “second time around” parents pick up on potential delays in a younger sibling if a first child was more typically developing.
What if I suspect that my child has Autism?
If you have a question about your child’s development you should first consult with your pediatrician for an autism screening and possible referral to a child psychologist.
Should pregnant women be thinking about Autism?
While researchers are working on pinpointed specific genes or clusters of genes that contribute to Autism, at the present time there is not a genetic screening for Autism, however Autism can run in families. There has been much speculation that diet or early immunizations can cause Autism. The latest research from the American Pediatric Association does not substantiate these theories.
Is there anything that parents can do to prevent Autism?
While there is not a cure for Autism, early intervention can help children improve their verbal and non-verbal communication abilities. Children who have a spectrum disorder are sometimes also diagnosed with Sensory-Integration Disorder (SI.) A team approach including occupational therapists, speech therapists and child psychologists works best to tailor a program specific to a child’s needs.