By: Chelle Stoneburg, M.Ed, BCBA
I can’t remember the first time I heard the word “Autism” because it has seemly always been a part of my story. Growing up with a family member with autism, I didn’t see it as a label, a disability, or a box of limitations. As a child, my cousin was a burst of energy, a lover of lizards, a budding meteorologist, and also, a person with autism. His diagnosis isn’t a sentence, but rather a way to better understand him, an insight into how he processes the world, and hints at how he needs support to be his best self. He’s to thank that I am where I am today.
As a professional who works with children with Autism and other behavioral concerns, I have seen families at all points in the journey. Arguably, taking the first step of recognizing your child may be delayed can be one of the scariest and bravest things you do as a parent. But I encourage you to trust your gut. The wait and see approach can increase your anxiety and your child may miss out of crucial early interventions. Be encouraged, call to schedule an appointment, it is okay to feel vulnerable and know that there is an army of people ready to walk this alongside you!
For starters, what is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)? ASD is a developmental condition that impacts an individual’s social skills, communication, and behavior. There’s a saying, a wise mom once shared with me “When you’ve met a child with Autism… that’s it. You’ve met one child with Autism.” And it’s true. ASD presents as a spectrum, with some individuals presenting with mild impacts, and other who present with severe challenges. The cause of ASD is not yet known, but signs are present early in development, typically before the age of two. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 1 in 59 children have ASD, with boys being four times more likely to receive a diagnosis than girls. The CDC states “there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing ASD.”
What should you look for? Focus on your child’s typical behavior and skills. Try not to think about “that one time they did that thing,” as professionals will want to know what your child does on a daily basis. Even if you only suspect mild symptoms, don’t delay in getting help.
For a toddler or preschooler, a child with ASD may:
- Not respond to their name
- Display delayed language, only speaking a few (if any) words, or relying on crying, grunting, or reaching to “talk”
- Use repetitive language, repeat things out of context, or echo what you say
- Not look at you when they talk
- Not point at interesting objects or use gestures
- Display a limited range of emotion
- Prefer to play alone
- Play repetitively and simply, such as lining toys up in a line
- Be preoccupied with certain toys, parts of objects, or characters
- Become unreasonably upset with changes in routine
- Engage in hand flapping, toe walking, spinning or other atypical motor movements
What now? If you have concerns about your child’s development, and particularly ASD, don’t wait to see if they are a “late bloomer.” For all children with developmental disabilities, early diagnosis and intervention is critical. The earlier you begin intervention, the more likely it can impact your child’s developmental trajectory. Diagnosis for ASD can be as early as two years old.
- Most importantly, talk to your child’s pediatrician. Don’t wait to see if they bring it up! Your pediatrician only sees a snapshot of child, and relies heavily on you to bring up concerns, particularly those that are not “measurable,” like behavior or social concerns. Your pediatrician is likely to refer you to specialized provider for a formal diagnosis and comprehensive evaluation.
- At home, take the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) This tool is a free screening test you can take online. This test will not diagnose your child, but will help you decide if further testing is appropriate.
- Schedule a screening with your local Children’s Developmental Services Agency (CDSA) for children under three years old, or with your local school district, for children over three years old. These agencies can provide a variety of intervention services, but you should also consult a physician or psychologist for further testing.
- Schedule a screening or intake appointment with a Developmental Pediatrician or Child Psychologist specializing in ASD. These specialized professionals can conduct a variety of diagnostic tests, counsel families about treatment, and discuss developmental concerns more in depth.