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Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder

by Jaime Friedman

July 30, 2022

What is ASD?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is “a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others,” according to the American Psychiatric Association. It stems from altered sensory perception in the brain causing people with ASD to experience external stimuli differently, meaning they have different sensory experiences and reactions to everyday situations. The CDC estimates one in every 44 children has some form of Autism. It is more commonly found in boys and reported across racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Signs of Autism in children usually begin showing by age two or three and get diagnosed, but this isn’t always the case. Children with Autism can also develop appropriately and then begin to lose skills and abilities they previously developed making every diagnosis a little different. Further, children who are higher functioning but present with social/communication deficits may not be diagnosed until their pre-teen years when social expectations increase.

There is no standard medical test for Autism Spectrum Disorder, although, the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS-2) is often considered the gold standard for the diagnostic process. Doctors generally make a diagnosis by talking to the children, questioning parents or other caregivers about the child’s behavior and completing ratings scales. Doctors look for early signs of Autism by comparing the child’s behavioral profile with other children of the same age. Once these qualitative observations have been made, diagnostic testing like the ADOS-2 can be conducted to provide supporting quantitative data.  The intake process can seem daunting, but since Autism exhibits itself so inconsistently, doctors need to have a complete understanding of the child’s behavior in order to identify all symptoms and the severity of them and to recommend appropriate treatment.

Why a spectrum?

Many people know Autism displays symptoms on a spectrum, making any case unique. Someone with Autism has a random combination of symptoms attributed to the disorder in varying degrees. Symptoms can also change over time. Some children on the spectrum are high functioning and only have minor problems socializing. Other cases can cause speech impairment or communication problems, which can really hurt someone’s chances to function independently in society. Some cases affect children with average or even advanced intelligence, while others experience mild to severe intellectual delays. Sometimes the child might not have an intellectual disability, but the communication barrier might be difficult to overcome. 

There are so many variables, but the severity of symptomology of Autism may depend on individual circumstances and/or exposure to treatment. A spectrum allows professionals to approach different forms of the disorder differently without mandating specific treatment for all cases. Maybe the biggest commonality between all ASD cases is that they all require individualized care.

3 Major Problems for Children with ASD

Though Autism is on a spectrum, there needs to be a few distinguishing factors to link all the cases. Medical experts have determined three basic traits that manifest somehow in every case of ASD.

The three most common problems for children with Autism are:

  1. Difficulty with verbal and non-verbal communication - not responding to or participating in conversation appropriately, difficulty reading body language and facial expression.
  2. Creating and maintaining relationships with others - isolated behavior and communication barriers can strain social relationships for those with ASD.
  3. Inflexible behavior - many cases feature repeated behaviors or strict routines.

Signs of Autism in Babies

Especially since communication is strained through infants without ASD, detection of early signs of Autism requires persistence and close attention. Every child develops differently as it is, but the American Psychiatric Association has determined some key milestones in childhood development and the average age at which they occur so parents can keep an eye out for delayed development.

If you have concerns about your child or would just like to be proactive, you can look for these signs before consulting a doctor:

  • No signs of socialization through 6 months
  • No pointing or hand gestures through 12 months
  • Not using one-word communication through 16 months
  • Not using two-word phrases by 24 months
  • Lack of eye contact and smiling
  • Not responding to his/her name
  • Not using body language for communication

What to Do

If you have a strong feeling your child may have Autism Spectrum Disorder, the best thing you can do is act quickly to begin finding the right treatment for your loved one. Talk to your child’s pediatrician and ask about the next step

Once you’ve been directed to all the right specialists and healthcare professionals for your child, you must educate yourself and anyone who might help with taking care of your child. As a parent of a child with Autism, you are now an advocate for your child to make sure they are getting all the best treatment and opportunities they are entitled to. The more you can learn at home, the better adjusted your child’s treatment can be. Not only will you be more in tune to your child’s needs, but practice makes perfect when it comes to treatment. Applying what you learn from doctors and professionals, along with engaging in your child’s education, helps maintain a stable, healthy environment around them.

Many children with Autism start with Intensive Behavioral Health Services (IBHS) with a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). This team of trained behavioral staff can help create and assess a behavioral treatment plan that is tailored to the needs of your child. Each plan is customized for each case and the goal is continuous growth and development according to individualized needs. IBHS-ABA focuses on skill acquisition, behavior reduction and parent training. There is no cure for Autism, but persistent treatment and dedication can make a huge difference.

Aside from finding ways to help with your child’s treatment, it is almost equally important for parents and guardians to reach out within the Autism community and find resources and programs that can help your child learn new skills. There are support groups for parents, and while specialists in this area may have the most knowledge about ASD, parents have lifetimes of experience, wisdom and guidance they are usually glad to share. Part of the parent’s role is making sure they do the right things to support their own health and stay informed. Joining a network of people affected by Autism, can be a necessary support for the whole family, and it’s a great way to discover the right programs and organizations for your loved one.