As responsible parents we all keep track of our child’s physical development and, hopefully, also measure a child’s milestones in how he or she plays, speaks, acts and learns. Typical developmental milestones in social/communication for a child are as follows:

• 0-6 months: social smile, making noises when spoken to.

• 6-12 months: babbling, tries to communicate, social imitation.

• 12 -18 months: first words, understanding simple directions, pointing, interest in peers.

Most parents of children with a disability suspect that something is wrong by the time the child is 18 months and typically look for assistance by the time the child is 2.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control in 2009 found that 1 in 110 children in America today have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The Autism Society of America (ASA) describes autism as a “national health crisis” that frequently is under diagnosed.

Recent studies suggest the age of diagnosis for autism is 3.1 to 3.4 years in the United Kingdom compared to 3.9 to 6.3 years in the United States, and Arizona with an average age of 5 years, 3 months.

Needless to say, early diagnosis is important for purposes of appropriate treatment and intervention to improve the lives of children and adults with autism.

Autism is a complex neuro-developmental disorder with excesses and deficits in behavior that have a neurological basis. Autism impairs social interaction and communication with restricted and repetitive behavior starting before the child is three. For example, social impairments in infants and toddlers could be observed as, not responding when their name is called, smiling less often and poor eye contact.

Three- to 5-year old autistic children are less likely to show social understanding and initiative, even with peers. They seem unable to respond to emotions, communicate non verbally or to take turns with peers. Research has shown that children with autism perform worse on tests of face and emotion recognition.

About one third of children with autism may not develop enough natural speech to meet daily communication needs.

Differences in communication may be present from the first year of life, and may include delays in onset of babbling, unusual gestures, diminished responsiveness and overall “disconnectedness” with the primary caregiver. In the second year, autistic children have less frequent and less diverse babbling, consonants, words and word combinations; gestures tend to be less integrated with words.

Autistic children are also less likely to make requests or exchange experiences. Often they just repeat what others say or reverse pronouns or use their name when talking about themselves (“Brian,” instead of “I” want water).

Autistic children also have difficulty with symbolic or imaginative play. Recently, a study found that high functioning autistic children performed well on basic language tasks involving vocabulary and spelling, however, performed poorly on complex language tasks such as figurative language, comprehension and inference.

Autism is a spectrum disorder where symptoms can be very different for each child and to complicate the matter, symptoms can also change with the child’s age.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for ASD at the 18- and 24-month well-child doctor visit. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, discuss them with your child’s pediatrician and, if necessary, obtain a referral to a specialist (child psychologist).

Early diagnosis is very important to ensure proper treatment and intervention within collaborative system such as state agencies (Arizona Early Intervention Program) and the public school system. Although there is no cure for autism, the child’s communication and behavior and overall life quality can be much improved with early detection and intervention.

• Astrid Heathcote is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Ahwatukee Foothills. She specializes in autism spectrum disorders and can be reached at (480) 275-2249 or

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