The identified prevalence of children with autism has grown over the past decade. According to data from the CDC, about 1 in 54 children have been identified with ASD, although the number is higher in children who have not yet been diagnosed or who have been misdiagnosed are taken into account. There are often tell-tale signs of autism that present themselves early on, but there are also less noticeable signs that often leave autism undetected. It is up to parents, teachers, doctors, and other adults in children’s lives to be knowledgeable about typical childhood development. Catching signs of autism very early on is important to begin interventions with the child and to help parents get what they need to help their child be healthy and happy.
At times it is challenging for those involved in a child’s life to notice the signs of autism in time to start early interventions. A child might develop normally as an infant but then digress and show symptoms that were not there previously. Or it is even possible that a child might show signs of autism early on but then after testing, parents find out that the symptoms are of an entirely different disorder. And then there are those less noticeable signs, as stated earlier. This, however, is the significance of early monitoring and detection and why parents, other caregivers, and teachers must never assume a child does or doesn’t have autism.
The Main Characteristics of Autism
The “S” in ASD stands for spectrum; this refers to the wide range of symptoms that an individual with autism may or may not display as well as the severity of these symptoms. “Autism spectrum disorder is a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person perceives and socializes with others, causing problems in social interaction and communication,” (Mayo Clinic). Due to the various areas of impact, a child could potentially show a dozen signs of having autism.
The following list of common signs comes from Mayo Clinic and falls under the category of social communication and interaction, which is often a deficit in individuals with autism.
● Fails to respond to his or her name or appears not to hear you at times
● Resists cuddling and holding, and seems to prefer playing alone, retreating into his or her world
● Has poor eye contact and lacks facial expression
● Doesn’t speak or has delayed speech, or loses previous ability to say words or sentences
● Can’t start a conversation or keep one going, or only starts one to make requests or label items
● Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
● Repeats words or phrases verbatim, but doesn’t understand how to use them
● Doesn’t appear to understand simple questions or directions
● Doesn’t express emotions or feelings and appears unaware of others’ feelings
● Doesn’t point at or bring objects to share interest
● Inappropriately approaches a social interaction by being passive, aggressive or disruptive
● Has difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues, such as interpreting other people’s facial expressions, body postures or tone of voice
The experts at Mayo Clinic also list the common signs of autism with patterns of behavior.
● Performs repetitive movements, such as rocking, spinning or hand flapping
● Performs activities that could cause self-harm, such as biting or head-banging
● Develops specific routines or rituals and becomes disturbed at the slightest change
● Has problems with coordination or has odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness or walking on toes, and has odd, stiff or exaggerated body language
● Is fascinated by details of an object, such as the spinning wheels of a toy car, but doesn’t understand the overall purpose or function of the object
● Is unusually sensitive to light, sound or touch, yet may be indifferent to pain or temperature
● Doesn’t engage in imitative or make-believe play
● Fixates on an object or activity with abnormal intensity or focus
● Has specific food preferences, such as eating only a few foods, or refusing foods with a certain texture
Lastly, the CDC has a list that is a little different than Mayo Clinic that highlights the ‘other symptoms’ that individuals with ASD may have.
● Hyperactivity (very active)
● Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
● Short attention span
● Causing self-injury
● Temper tantrums
● Unusual eating and sleeping habits
● Unusual mood or emotional reactions
● Lack of fear or more fear than expected
● Unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel
The Age of Onset
The age that children typically begin to display symptoms of autism differs between individuals for various reasons. Some begin showing signs as early as infancy, while some don’t until they are in school. The average age at diagnosis—not necessarily the age in which symptoms are first displayed—in the United States is more than 4 years old, although the actual diagnosis can be made by 2 years of age. “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at 18 months and 24 months, yet only about half of primary care practitioners screen for autism,” (Psychiatry.org). What clinicians have discovered throughout the many years of research on the topic and what parents and teachers need to know is that children who are diagnosed with autism at an earlier age are more likely to receive the proper evidence-based treatments.
There are many factors as to why a child’s autism diagnosis would be delayed. The lack of resources, family support, lack of knowledge or experience, mental health stigma, misinformation, cultural factors, the cost of evaluation and interventions, delayed onset of symptoms, etc. Thankfully research in the area of autism continues and teachers and caretakers are overall more knowledgeable about the disorder.
Every child with autism is unique, just like every child, in general, is unique. How and when one presents his or her symptoms may look completely different than children of the same age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and location. The goal of clinicians and educators is for parents to become more aware of the signs of autism and for there to be a general screening when all children are toddlers by their primary care physicians. With early detection comes early intervention and in turn children with autism who may have less severe symptoms.
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