By Gary Feldman, M.D., Medical director
Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at Miller Children’s Hospital Long Beach
This year more children will be diagnosed with autism than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined– and each year this number rises. Autism affects one in 88 children. The problem isn’t the diagnosis; the problem is our lack of awareness about what autism actually is and how to treat it. To increase awareness of autism, April has been declared National Autism Awareness Month.
Autism spectrum disorder and autism are generic terms to describe complex brain development disorders. These disorders include difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors. It can be associated with intellectual disabilities, difficulties in motor coordination, short attention spans and possible physical health issues. There is no specific cause of autism. In recent years, scientists have identified changes in the make-up of genes that are associated with autism.
Signs of autism
Even though autism has its roots in early brain development, most signs and symptoms emerge between the ages of 2 and 3 years old. There are a few “red flags” that parents should be aware of that indicate the need for evaluation.
• No big smiles by six months or thereafter
• No back-and-forth sharing of sounds or facial expressions by nine months
• No babbling by 12 months
• No back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing or waving by 12 months
• No words by 16 months
• No two-word meaningful phrases (without imitating or repeating) by 24 months
If you child shows any of these signs, it is important to ask your pediatrician for an autism evaluation.
Symptoms of autism
Even though the typical characteristics of autism are communication challenges, social interaction difficulties and tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors, these symptoms and their severity vary greatly. Some individuals with autism are high-functioning and, for others, the symptoms interfere with everyday life.
• Social interaction. Most children with autism have difficulty engaging in human interaction. Children with autism have a harder time understanding gestures and often prefer to play alone. Also, they have a hard time expressing themselves emotionally or regulating their emotions. Sometimes these uncomfortable social interactions can lead to aggressive and disruptive behaviors. Another way to understand the lack of social interaction that these children have is to think of them not having a good ability to “tune in to your frequency” or to “connect” when interacting with others. Just like a radio can be completely off the station or partially off the station, that’s how they are with social communications.
• Communication difficulties. Young children with autism tend to be delayed in babbling and speaking. Teaching techniques also are different for children with autism. Pictures are used to help teach autistic children gestures. They often have a hard time depicting body language, tone of voice and sarcastic expressions.
• Repetitive behaviors. Common repetitive behaviors include hand-flapping, rocking back-and-forth and jumping. They can take the form of intense obsessions – focusing on numbers, vacuum cleaners, etc.
• Health conditions. Some children that are diagnosed with autism have other medical conditions that need to be controlled. Gastrointestinal issues, seizures, sleep dysfunction and sensory processing problems are common.
Intervention helps anyone with autism reduce symptoms and increase their skills and abilities. Intervention can include behavioral treatments, speech and language therapy and/or medication. Starting treatment early is important and requires the support of a child’s entire family. Parents are taught ways to work with their child. Other intervention support focuses on social and learning skills.
If your child is experiencing any of these signs or symptoms, schedule an autism assessment at the www.millerchildrenshospitallb.org/stramski/behavioral-neurodevelopment-clinic Stramski Children’s Developmental Center at Miller Children’s. Call (562) 728-5034 to schedule an appointment.