Searching for Signs of Autism

Earlier diagnosis is the key to earlier intervention

Signs of autism

Autism is like many other conditions or disorders — the earlier you find it, the better the care you can provide.

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Doctors are beginning to look for signs of autism in children at younger ages. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians screen all children for autism at their 18- and 24-month “well-child” visits.

“Clinicians are able to identify symptoms of autism in children earlier than ever before. This is important, as early identification of an autism spectrum disorder leads to early intervention, which is a factor in later prognosis,” says Leslie Speer, PhD, pediatric psychologist at the Center for Autism, Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. “Research and clinical evidence show that intensive treatment for children with autism has a significant impact on long-term outcome, particularly when intervention is initiated before age three.”

Brothers and sisters of children with autism also are at a higher risk for developing an autism spectrum disorder. Support for parents and monitoring of siblings’ development is critical.

“Pediatricians are our first line of defense,” Dr. Speer says. “Well-child screenings are crucial for identifying children showing developmental delays and signs of autism. Identification and referral for further evaluation is what is going to lead to early intervention.”

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Early warning signs can sometimes be seen in infants. For example, some children do not make eye contact with their parents, return smiles, or respond when parents call their names. “Parents often describe their child as in their own world and hard to reach,” Dr. Speer adds.

Know the signs

Here are four major warning signs of autism in a young child. The child:

  • is uninterested in interacting with others.
  • does not point.
  • does not imitate other people’s behavior.
  • is unresponsive to his or her name.

Approximately one third of children with autism have what is known as regressive autism, which can appear between the ages of 18 months and 30 months. At that point, the child stops developing normally, and seems to lose skills. For example, the child:

  • stops talking.
  • loses acquired gestural language, such as pointing or clapping.
  • becomes aloof and stops playing with others.

Team evaluations

Children who have failed their pediatric autism screening or who are at risk for autism because they have an older sibling with autism, can receive a comprehensive evaluation by a team of pediatric specialists at the Center for Autism, which offers weekly “Baby Day Evaluations” for children from birth through 35 months.

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During these two-day evaluations, a pediatric psychologist interviews the parents and observes the child engaging in social play (a game of peek-a-boo, for example) with parents; a neurodevelopmental pediatrician gives a physical exam; a speech and language pathologist assesses the child’s language skills; and a board-certified behavior analyst assesses the child’s social skills while engaging the child in play.

Experts are learning more and more about autism identification, etiology, and treatment every day. Working as a team with families ensures comprehensive treatment plans and support for the whole family.

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