Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can be difficult to understand and encompass a wide range of disorders that vary from mild to severe.
Today, ASDs affect as many as 1 in every 68 children. Nearly every 20 minutes, a new case of autism is diagnosed and is the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the United States. Once considered rare, autism is now more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes or Down syndrome. Extensive research is being conducted worldwide to understand the reasons for this alarming rate of growth but definitive explanations are still unknown.
Important advances in diagnosis and treatment have been made however.
Today, research indicates that a reliable diagnosis can be made as early as 18 months. Typically though, diagnoses do not occur until the ages of 3-4 or even older. This is a reflection of the symptoms of ASD which can be unclear to parents of very young children.
As a parent of a child or young adult who displays evidence of one of the Autism Spectrum Disorders, you will want help in understanding these. Children with ASD have challenges in three main developmental areas:
- Delayed or deviant language development
- Disinterest in other people and/or poor social skills
- Rigid, repetitive, behaviors that are difficult to change
There are three main diagnoses
that make up the Autism Spectrum:
Children with classical autism have little to no communication skills, show a preference for objects over people and engage in the same behaviors over and over again. High-functioning autism refers to children who have average to above average cognitive abilities (intelligence).
Children with Asperger’s Disorder have average to above average cognitive abilities, have difficulty reading non-verbal cues, talk too much about a narrow range of topics, sound like “little professors”, have difficulty making and maintaining friendships, and show unusual specialized interests (e.g. bus schedules, the Titanic).
Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
Sometimes referred to Atypical Autism- Children with PDD-NOS have some characteristics of either autism or Asperger’s Disorder, but do not have enough symptoms to be meet the criteria for the either disorder.
Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders
There is no single sign or symptom that a young child is presenting with,
or is at risk of developing, an autism spectrum disorder.
Rather, children present with a range of symptoms, including delayed or unusual language development, poor social development and rigid, repetitive behavior patterns.
Researchers are currently looking into the earliest possible “warning signs” that a child is at risk of developing ASD. While there are no conclusive signs, research has identified the lack of response to name by 12 months of age and the lack of sharing interests/attention by 18 months of age as two of the most critical symptoms of possible ASD.
Below is a list of some of the early symptoms that are commonly seen in children with ASD. Please note that this list is not meant to be used for making a diagnosis. Presence of one or even a few of these symptoms does not mean that a child does have ASD. However, if a child does present with several of the symptoms below, further evaluation may be warranted.
0 to 4 months of age:
- Little to no eye contact
- Does not look at people when they are making social “sounds” such as humming or clapping
- Shows more interest in objects than people
- Does not show a social smile (smiling back to someone who smiles at them, without being cooed at or touched)
5 to 12 months of age:
- Does not look at people while smiling (baby may smile in response to something fun, but does not also combine this with eye contact)
- Does not babble (or the babble does not sound like “talking”)
- Lacks joint attention: Does not look at something interesting, such as a dog, then look at parents, and then back at the dog as a way to get parents to join in looking at the dog
- Lacks social attention: Does not follow the parent’s eye contact when they are looking at something, such as whey they try to point out an airplane in the sky
- Does not respond to their own name
- Does not point using the index finger
- Does not show a caring or concerned reaction to other people crying
12 to 24 months of age:
- Does not point to share interests, such as pointing to a slide on the playground
- Does not use single words by 16 months: no two-word spontaneous phrases (“go car,” “look doggie”) by 24 months
Other Developmental Signs:
- May develop language normally and then lose these skills
- Repetitive body movements (hand flapping, spinning)
- Fixation upon a single object, such as a red block or a toy school bus
- Cannot tolerate change, such as a new toothbrush or Mom getting a new haircut
- Oversensitivity to texture, lights, smells and/or sounds
- Delayed motor skills (late walking, riding a tricycle or learning to jump)
- Does not interact with peers as expected, such as asking for friends to come over, playing together, taking turns and interacting