A report from the Centers for Disease Control in December of 2009 found that one 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.
Currently, the Autism Society suggests that the cost of caring for a child with autism exceeds $3 million and that the U.S. should reserve about $90 billion a year to cover costs for research, insurance, education and more.
Autism is treatable and studies show that early diagnosis and intervention lead to better outcomes. Possible signs to watch for early identification in the young child are:
• Lack or delay in spoken language.
• Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerism (hand flapping or twirling objects).
• Little or no eye contact.
• Lack of interest in peer relationships.
• Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play.
• Persistent fixation on parts of objects (spinning the wheels on a toy car for long periods, instead of playing with it “appropriately”).
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 nonverbally or to take turns with peers.
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 visits. If you have any concerns about your child’s development, discuss them with your pediatrician and, if necessary, obtain a referral to a specialist. There are no medical tests for assessing and diagnosing autism. A proper diagnosis is based on careful observation of the child’s behavior and interaction, and tracking the history of the individual’s developmental level. However, a thorough medical examination is helpful to rule out other issues, such as hearing problems or digestive concerns.
An examination by a psychologist may include intellectual assessment, a detailed developmental history and careful observation of the child across numerous settings (home and school). Once a diagnosis has been made, a collaborative effort to ensure proper treatment – like speech or occupational therapy and incorporation of educational services – with the family occurs so they can work with the child’s individual strengths and develop strategies or treatments for the child’s deficits or weaknesses.
Although there is no cure for autism, it is very treatable and current studies show that early diagnosis and intervention can lead to much better outcomes.
Astrid Heathcote is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Ahwatukee Foothills. She specializes in autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and can be reached at (480) 275-2249 or www.drastrid.org.