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Early Diagnosis Matters for Kids With Autism

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
A toddler boy playing with dinosaur toys

With autism on the rise, many parents want to know more about it. “Autism is part of a group of disorders known as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), characterized by different levels of impairment in communication skills and social abilities, as well as restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviors and interests,” says Max Wiznitzer, MD, interim Chief of Neurology at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s.

“The earlier parents and healthcare providers intervene, the better,” says Dr. Wiznitzer. “That way, kids with autism can receive services that help maximize developmental potential, reduce symptoms and improve quality of life.”

However, a new study suggests that many cases slip under the radar. In fact, about one-fourth of children with autism go undiagnosed. The burden falls heaviest on Black and Hispanic families.

Why? Language barriers and social stigma may play a role. Also, there is no single symptom or simple test for autism. Explains Dr. Wiznitzer, “The signs vary from child to child. Providers diagnose the condition through a combination of observations, assessments, and questions about behavior and development.”

What Causes Autism?

As many as one in 36 children is autistic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Boys are four times more likely to develop the condition, studies suggest. However, girls tend to have more severe symptoms.

Doctors aren’t sure what causes autism. Some research points to differences in brain chemicals caused by a combination of genes. In terms of the rise in cases, researchers believe advances in diagnosis and greater awareness of autism spectrum disorder are driving the increase. But there’s probably more to the story: Genetic factors and perhaps some environmental causes might also be contributing to the trend.

Know the Warning Signs

Your child’s pediatrician should screen for ASD at the 18-month and 24-month well-child visits. High-risk children may need more frequent check-ins. Kids who were born early, had a low birth weight or have a sibling with autism fall into this category.

You don’t have to merely wait for these visits though. Look out for warning signs. According to Dr. Wiznitzer, these signs appear by age 3, but often are present by your child’s first birthday. “Most infants express interest in the world and the people around them, engaging with voices, smiles, and gestures. If your little one seems isolated and unresponsive, raise a red flag,” he advises. Also notice if your child:

  • Is slow to start talking.
  • Doesn’t respond to their name by 12 months of age.
  • Never points at interesting objects – say, a plane flying overhead – by 14 months.
  • Always plays with toys the same way, including lining them up.
  • Repeats movements such as hand-flapping, body-rocking or spinning.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some children with the disorder may rarely speak and have trouble learning how to read and write. Others can attend and succeed in school.

Act Early and Often

If you notice these or other concerns about your child’s development:

  • Speak up. Tell your child’s pediatrician what you’ve seen. Ask for a developmental screening.
  • Then, do it again. If the pediatrician doesn’t share your concerns, trust your gut. Ask for a referral to a specialist. Options include developmental pediatricians, child neurologists and child psychologists or psychiatrists.
  • Reach out. Some healthcare systems have patient navigators. These are professionals who can guide you toward services and help complete paperwork. Your state may also have an early intervention program.

How Can Parents Help a Child?

Research has shown that early diagnosis and intervention can improve a child’s function and behavior. Children who take part in intervention programs with a low student-to-teacher ratio often can learn to cope in regular settings.

“Children who participate in structured programs, including speech, occupational and educational interventions, tend to do better,” says Dr. Wiznitzer.

Related Links

UH Rainbow is currently ranked among the best children’s hospitals in the country for Neurology & Neurosurgery by U.S. News & World Report. Learn more.