Autism. The diagnosis can send chills down a parent’s spine, and for good reason. Autism has historically been portrayed as a devastating illness that destines a child to a life of dependency and struggle. Nothing could be further from the truth. Autism-spectrum disorders are increasingly common, with more and more families finding new ways to live with this old condition. According to the CDC, one in 68 children will be diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. Boys are far more likely than girls to be diagnosed with the condition, with one in 42 boys receiving an autism-spectrum diagnosis. Despite the high prevalence of this disorder, a cure is still out of sight, and research funding is depressingly hard to come by. April is Autism Awareness Month, with millions of advocates across the globe using this time to drum up support for autism research, additional services for children with autism, and increased access to diagnostic and treatment services.
Autism: A Spectrum, Not a Single Condition
Autism is not a single diagnosis, but rather a spectrum of related disorders, including Asperger’s and pervasive developmental disorder, among others. All autism-spectrum disorders are characterized by differences in social development, with some children also experiencing intellectual disabilities, language delays, and issues with sensory input. Every child develops differently, though, and one child’s autism will look very different from another’s.
Doctors increasingly refer to the autism-spectrum to indicate that autism is still not well understood. Moreover, one child’s prognosis may look very different from another’s. It’s challenging, if not impossible, to discern what a child’s life will look like in five years based solely on an autism diagnosis. Every child with autism is an individual, and parents concerned about the effects of autism should know that a single diagnosis tells them very little about their child’s future.
Signs of Autism
Two generations ago, an autism diagnosis often doomed a child to life in an institutional setting. Children with autism-spectrum disorders often never spoke or interacted with peers. Thanks to the efforts of advocates, parents, and dedicated researchers, though, autism doesn’t have to cripple a child’s life options. We now know that early detection is the key to helping children on the spectrum live normal lives. The earlier a child is diagnosed, the easier it is to offer him or her the interventions necessary to maximize social and intellectual development. If you think your child might have autism, the time to act is now. Some early warning signs include:
- Obsessive or compulsive tendencies
- Not responding to his or her name by his or her first birthday
- Does not point at objects by 14 months
- Does not play pretend by 18 months
- Avoids eye contact, even with loved ones
- Not able to use two-word phrases by 24 months
- Sudden regression in development that is not well-explained by stress, such as the birth of a sibling
- Reacts poorly to changes; may have age-inappropriate temper tantrums or struggle to bounce back from challenges
- Unusual reactions to sensory input. Autistic children may hate certain fabrics, react angrily to specific smells, or be unable to tolerate bright light.
- Plays alone without seeking the company of others
- Doesn’t seem comforted by others, even loved ones, when he or she is upset
- Does not have typical facial expressions, and does not seem to understand others’ facial expressions or body language
- Has difficulty relating to or talking about other people’s feelings; note that most children have some trouble caring about others’ feelings, so this is a more typical symptom of autism in older children, not toddlers.
- Repeatedly saying the same word or phrase
If you’re worried about your child or another child you care about, know that there is hope. Autism does not sentence a child to a life of misery, and experts are increasingly recognizing that many autistic children have unique gifts. Early intervention can help you uncover your child’s unique skill-set.
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