Because autism is a complex neurological disorder with a full range of variations, it can be a complicated process to diagnose where a child falls on the autism spectrum– if at all. Most doctors agree that a reliable autism diagnosis can be made in children as young as two years of age, but warning signs can be identified much earlier.
Kids in the House spoke with top autism experts to find out what warning signs of autism every parent can be on the lookout for.
What is Autism?
Autism affects three areas of development:
- Communication: Repetitive language, idiosyncratic (peculiar, individualized) language, problems learning how to speak or with the ability to speak, problems with back and forth communication
- Social Functioning: The ability to make friends and engage in reciprocal interactions with other people
- Behavior: Behaviors that are overly intense, repetitive, or unusual
It is 4 to 5 times more common in boys than in girls, with a total of 1 in 68 American children estimated to be on the autism spectrum according to Autism Speaks and the Center for Disease Control.
Identifying and treating autism as early as possible can make a world of difference for your child.
“Early intervention is critical. It’s the most important thing I could tell any parent,” advises speech language pathologist Sarah Clifford Scheflen, MS, CCC-SLP.
At this stage, with so few skills and processes developed, it can be easy to overlook the subtle warning signs that an autism spectrum disorder may be present.
“The first time I started realizing that my son was different was when he was an infant. He didn’t want to be close to me. He didn’t snuggle like I saw other babies behaving, and I internalized that as I was doing something wrong, that I wasn’t good at being a mom,” says Debi Cox, mother of a high-functioning autistic child. “He kept wanting to stop nursing and gagging.”
It can be disconcerting to realize your infant is not connecting to you emotionally or physically, but child psychologist Allison Kawa, PsyD., says this is a commonality many parents of autistic children recall when thinking back to this age.
“When parents look back on their children’s early life, after the child’s been diagnosed with autism, a lot of times they can recall some early, subtle signs. Those might include a lack of reciprocal social smile,” says Kawa, who specializes in child and adolescent evaluations.
By eight weeks of age, most babies are able to, and will, smile back when a parent smiles at them. Kawa says this is one of the ways babies bond with their parents, which explains why parents of autistic children might feel like they’re missing out. Instead of internalizing it as your child being disinterested in you as a parent, know that it may be out of your and your baby’s control.
As your child moves into the toddler phase, there are certain milestones that doctors look for in determining their developmental status. Verbal speech is one of them, beginning with simple babbling and moving into the use of single words like “mama” and “dada.” While some autistic children remain nonverbal for their entire lives, others just take longer to reach this stage.
“Some of the classic signs of autism that we often see in toddlers or preschool age children are going to include delays in speech. The children either don’t talk at all or they might say some single words, but they are not really combining them into phrases or sentences yet,” says Kawa.
How your child responds in day to day situations can also be an indicator of autism. An abnormal response to a stimuli can not only point to a positive diagnosis, but where the child falls on the autism spectrum.
“With my son, he could walk on hot gravel in bare feet in the middle of summertime. He wasn’t responding to the hot gravel–the stimuli– in a normal way. He was just walking on it,” says Dr. Jerry Kartzinel, MD, of his own experience in identifying autism warning signs.
For some kids, this means repeating an action that previously hurt them, like touching a hot stove, but for others it could be not understanding a parent’s “I love you.”
“The more abnormal responses to everyday stimuli, the more challenged we are to help that child see and perceive our world in a normal way,” says Kartzinel, a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Diagnosing and treating autism requires the expertise and knowledge of qualified medical professionals, but knowing the warning signs can help you decide when it is time to consult an expert.
For more on identifying autism, check out how to identify quirkiness vs. autism.
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