What is autism spectrum disorder and what do I do if I think my child has it?
We all hear the words autistic, Asperger’s and autism spectrum, and it is hard to know what is what. As the prevalence of these diagnoses continues to grow, the experts in the field are learning more and more every day.
There have been very recent discoveries about a whole new way to understand and help these children. We now understand that autism is on a continuum and autism spectrum disorder is the umbrella term that includes a variety of subtypes of autism, including Asperger’s Syndrome.
Since there is no medical test that can conclusively diagnose autism spectrum disorders, parents must trust a team of health professionals to make a diagnosis based on a child’s behavior and development. Often, children don’t receive a final diagnosis early enough to receive best possible outcome with treatment.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ranges from mild to severe. Children struggle to read social cues, communicate with others, and perform day-to-day tasks. Common symptoms include:
• Lack of eye contact
• Failure to look at or listen to other people
• Lack of interest in sharing their enjoyment with others, or in sharing toys and games
• Abnormal responses to signs of anger, distress, or affection in others
Additionally, children with ASD may have problems with communication, repetitive behaviors, sensory reaction, and sleep habits. They may also have some degree of intellectual differences, and one in four children with ASD has seizures.
It can be very scary to observe any of these symptoms in your child. It is natural to hope that he or she will grow out of it as time progresses. If you have concerns, your child’s primary care doctor is usually the first person you should speak with.
You may feel overwhelmed or isolated as you begin to wonder whether or not your child or children might have a type of autism. It is important to have open conversations with your medical team to see whether or not it makes sense to schedule an evaluation to determine whether your child could benefit from treatment.
Intervene early to give your child the best start in life.
Research has demonstrated that intensive behavioral therapy in young children with ASD can significantly improve cognitive and language skills. Therapy should begin at diagnosis. Experienced professionals can help you determine the right approach based on your child’s particular needs. Parents should also involve their child’s school, which may be able to offer additional services and intervention based on a child’s eligibility.
Medication is another option for treatment. Some medications can help reduce symptoms of ASD—such as high energy levels, inability to focus, depression, or seizures—that cause difficulties for children at home or in school. In addition to therapy and medication, dietary treatments can also be used to ease symptoms of ASD.
“Aren’t kids over-labeled these days? I don’t want to rush into a diagnosis.”
Children develop at different paces, and not all children whose development is different from their peers will be diagnosed with ASD. Therefore, it’s reasonable to want to adopt a watch-and-wait approach before having your child evaluated.
It is important to remember that treatment has its greatest effect during the first 3 years of the life of a child with autism spectrum disorder. This is why it’s important for parents to talk to a professional as soon as they notice any signs of ASD or other developmental problems in their child. Even if you are wary of having your child labeled as autistic, treatments such as speech and behavioral therapy can be started before a diagnosis of ASD. Early intervention can reduce or prevent more severe disability and can improve a child’s IQ, language ability, and everyday functioning.
Treatment should start early and continue throughout adolescence.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends early intervention for children with ASD. The AAP believes that effective intervention programs include the following features:
• Focused and challenging learning activities at the proper developmental level
• Small classes that give each child one-on-one time with a therapist or teacher
• Special training for family and friends
• Opportunities to socialize and play with children at typical stages of development
• A child-centered approach that includes altering the program to fit the child’s individual needs
• Programs that teach structural and visual cues and adaptation strategies for new situations
• Tailored curriculum that fits each specific child’s needs
Working with a therapist can be especially helpful for children with ASD because they have a higher risk of developing some mental disorders than people without ASD. The most common mental disorders that people with ASD develop are anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression. Symptoms of coexisting mental disorders may also be reduced by behavioral therapy and/or medication.
Because mental disorders typically emerge as a child gets older, it can be very beneficial to create a long-term relationship with a therapist.
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