How To Know If Your Child Has Autism

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One of the hardest things we have to do as pediatricians is tell parents that their child has autism. But one of the most meaningful things is watching these same families learn to value their child for who they are rather than who they are not. To help dispel some myths about autism, we’ve gathered some important information about this condition that we’d like to share so we can all be more knowledgeable and more accepting.

What exactly is autism (or ASD)?

Richel, (Peter Richel, MD)

Peter Richel, MD, FAAP

Autism, often called autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a group of neurodevelopment disorders characterized by intellectual disability, language impairment, repetitive patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction. Although autism is a lifelong condition, it usually is diagnosed in early childhood.

Autism is referred to as a “spectrum” disorder because it encompasses a wide range of symptoms and levels of functional disability. Some children (and adults) with ASD are fully able to perform all activities of daily living, while others require substantial support. Asperger syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder and certain developmental disorders are also sometimes included under the autism umbrella.

Occurring in every racial and ethnic group and across all socioeconomic levels, autism can happen in any family. However, boys are significantly more likely to develop autism than girls.

Common signs to look for if you think your child might have autism

ASD symptoms can vary greatly from person to person depending on the severity of the disorder, but in general, children with ASD may seem different, especially when compared to other infants or children their own age. In other cases, children may develop normally until the second or even third year of life, but then start to withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.

Children with ASD may fail to respond to their names, avoid eye contact, become overly focused on certain objects and only interact with others to achieve specific goals. Often children with ASD do not understand how to play or engage with other children and may prefer to be alone. As they get older, they may find it difficult to understand other people’s feelings or talk about their own feelings.

Early indicators of autism:

  • no babbling or pointing by age 1
  • no single words by age 16 months
  • no 2-word phrases by age 2
  • no response to name
  • loss of language or social skills previously acquired
  • poor eye contact
  • excessive lining up of toys or objects
  • no smiling or social responsiveness

Later indicators include:

  • impaired ability to make friends with peers
  • impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • absence of imaginative and social play
  • repetitive or unusual use of language
  • abnormally intense or focused interest
  • preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
  • inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals

Do vaccinations cause autism?

No, vaccinations do not cause autism. Over the last two decades, extensive research has studied whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism as claimed by the now-debunked 1998 study (retracted in 2010) by Andrew Wakefield. The results of this research are clear: vaccines do not cause autism.

How is autism treated?

There is no cure for ASD. However, there are many therapies and behavioral interventions that can substantially improve the range of symptoms of autism. Health care professionals agree that the earlier the intervention, the better.

Educational/behavioral interventions: Early behavioral/educational interventions have been very successful in many children with ASD. In addition, family counseling for the parents and siblings of children with ASD often helps families cope with the particular challenges of living with a child with ASD.

Medications: While medication can’t cure ASD or even treat its main symptoms, there are some that can help with related symptoms such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Antipsychotic medications are used to treat severe behavioral problems and seizures can be treated with anticonvulsant drugs. Medication to treat people with attention deficit disorder are often used effectively to help decrease impulsivity and hyperactivity in people with ASD.

What research is being done?

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) conducts research in its laboratories at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and also supports additional research through grants to major medical institutions across the country. As part of the Children’s Health Act of 2000, the NINDS and three sister institutes have formed the NIH Autism Coordinating Committee to expand, intensify and coordinate NIH’s autism research. Eight dedicated research centers across the country have been established as “Centers of Excellence in Autism Research” to bring together researchers and the resources they need. The Centers are conducting basic and clinical research, including investigations into causes, diagnosis, early detection, prevention and treatment of autism.

More information on autism

If you think your child might have autism, we’re here to help, and to listen

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we’re here for you and your child. If you think your child has autism, please come in and meet with us. We’ll test and evaluate your child and then together with you, chart a course for the future. Feel free to contact us, and we look forward to meeting you and your child.

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By Peter Richel, MD, FAAP, a Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatrician.

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About the Author: ML Ball