Recognizing the signs of autism

Along with the joy of parenting comes the weighty responsibility of ensuring your child’s well-being.

Making certain your child gets proper nutrition, enough sleep, regular checkups and scheduled vaccinations are the basics.

Being aware of the indications that your child may have autism spectrum disorder is equally important, because early diagnosis can make a tremendous difference in his or her development. Some signs are evident even in one-year-olds.

The signs of autism

Parents eagerly anticipate the developing interactions with their infant. They should be concerned if:

• the child does not have back-and-forth exchanges of vocalizations or social behaviors such as smiling or making faces before nine months, and there is no sharing of interest by pointing, or reaching or waving by 12 months (source: Autism Speaks.org).

• there are delays in language development, loss of speech, or repetition of words and phrases that don’t make sense in the situation. Parents of young children can complete an online screening to determine whether to follow up with a provider; the screening can be found at Autismspeaks.org.

In older children, failure to develop friendships is concerning, as is intense interest in a very narrow topic. Eye contact may be poor, they may use gestures less than expected, and they may have difficulty with transitions and changes in routine.

What’s involved in screening?

Parents who notice these behaviors in their children should confer with their pediatricians. They will conduct a brief screening in their office, and if necessary, make referrals to specialists for further evaluation.

A psychologist or psychiatrist will assess your child, sometimes with input from a speech-language pathologist. Depending on the child’s age, the evaluation will include variations on observing a child in different play, communication, and interactional tasks. Parents will be extensively interviewed about their child’s development and activities, and teachers may be asked for comment.

While parents may be reluctant to pursue an evaluation, early identification can insure that treatment begins at a young age. Studies have shown that early, intensive behavioral intervention improves learning, communication and social skills in young children with autism spectrum disorders.

Seek support

Having a child who has an autism spectrum disorder can be stressful emotionally, socially and financially. Parents often are intensely involved in their advocacy for their children, in cheering them on and celebrating their achievements as well as handling the practical aspects of dealing with appointments and providers. It’s important for them to seek support in caring for their child and to find ways to ensure that their own needs are met.

You can learn more about autism spectrum disorder, treatments and services by visiting http://www.bradleyhospital.org and clicking on “Our Centers and Services”. The Rhode Island Consortium for Autism Research and Treatment (RI-CART) directs its efforts into advancing treatment and improving the quality of life for people on the autism spectrum. Find out more at www.autismri.org

April is National Autism Awareness Month. The Autism Project will hold its 16th annual Imagine Walk and Family Fun Day for Autism on April 29 at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick. For more information, visit www. http://www.theautismproject.org/events/imagine-walk.

Karen Cammuso, Ph.D., ABPP, is a board-certified child and adolescent psychologist at Bradley Hospital. She is clinical director of the Bradley Verrecchia Outpatient Clinic for Children with Autism and Developmental Disabilities, and clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Call 401-432-1119 for more information.

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