You can never know beforehand how you might feel when you suspect your son or daughter might have autism spectrum disorder. You may feel heartbroken and that’s completely okay or you can be relieved that you finally know what’s going on. Most likely, it will be a mix of these two feelings, often accompanied by feelings of guilt and most likely a whole number of questions. Let’s try to quench that question thirst and provide you with some answers and advice.
What is autism?
Let’s start from the beginning. What exactly is autism? Autism spectrum disorder (autism or ASD) is a developmental condition affecting the way people act, relate and interact with others while experiencing the world. Difficulties that autistic people face while dealing with the world include handling social situations, repetitive behaviors, speech impediments, reading non-verbal signals and communication, and many other challenges.
As the term „spectrum“ suggests, each person experiences a different variation of difficulties. Some people learn to deal with these symptoms on their own usually only earning the label „socially awkward“, while others might need more structured help from experts.
Signs of autism
Most telltale signs tend to usually appear between 2 and 3 years of age. In some cases, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. All children learn at different paces, so even though you might think the lack of ability at a certain age might point toward the autism spectrum, you can never be sure on your own. There are certain signs to look for in younger children, but the diagnosis is better left to a professional.
It’s not completely clear what’s driving the uptick in the number of diagnosed children each year, but diagnosing early (and that can mean as early as 18 months of age) has the biggest impact when it comes to dealing with autism.
We’ve compiled a list of signs you can look for if you have an inkling your child might suffer from autistic spectrum disorder and ways in which to find out the diagnosis.
Early signs of autism in babies
At this age, picking up on autism signs involves paying a lot of attention to your child and evaluating if your baby meets developmental milestones. Some things to watch out for if you’re looking for autism signs are if your baby:
- doesn’t make any eye contact with you or close family
- seems to look right through you
- doesn’t show interest in faces and at looking at people
- doesn’t react to sounds and to his or her name (but otherwise hears fine)
- doesn’t like to be held or cuddled
- doesn’t show signs of talking (doesn’t babble)
Babies at this age are very drawn to their primary caretakers so don’t fuss too much about your baby not wanting to spend time with others and even refusing to be held by other people. You spend the most time with your little one and you are the first person that can tell if something is wrong. If you have any doubts, talk to your physician.
Signs of autism in two-year-olds
Problems in areas such as language, social connections, and emotional development are usually seen when the child blows out two candles on the birthday cake. Of course, there are challenges when diagnosing autism in 2-year-olds because symptoms can vary significantly and even children developing normally may show signs albeit less intense. Diagnosing autism is based on a combination of symptoms that persist or get worse with time when left untreated.
Signs that your baby is not developing normally and may be showing signs of autism are if your child:
- has a language delay and struggles to express his wishes and needs or has unusual speaking patterns
- doesn’t respond to his or her name and is unable to follow clear directions
- may have sudden inappropriate outbursts – laughing, crying, screaming
- plays with toys in unusual ways
- doesn’t engage in playing pretend and does not imitate or mimic what you do
- struggles to play and interact with other children and rather prefers playing alone
- repeats actions over and over
- does not like to be touched, gets agitated easily by noises, smells or foods
- has sleep disturbances
- has behavioral problems, is uncooperative or overly active, impulsive or aggressive
If you notice your child is showing one or more signs mentioned above, it’s always best to consult your doctor. It may not be autism, but it’s crucial to determine the cause of any developmental problems, especially if your child doesn’t make eye contact or doesn’t show any signs of speech by the age of two.
Signs of autism in three-year-olds
Most children diagnosed with autism are diagnosed before the age of three, but there are still many cases not diagnosed until preschool or later. These milder cases may lack the most dominant symptoms but if you think your preschooler is displaying autism signs, get him or her screened. The sooner, the better – the sooner you can intervene means better chances at the outcome of the situation.
Watch for these symptoms to tell you whether your child might have autism:
- your child doesn’t like to play with other children
- he or she doesn’t want to cuddle or hug you and doesn’t show any emotional reactions toward you
- our child doesn’t speak at and has trouble expressing his needs and wants
- your little one doesn’t make any eye contact and seems to not pay attention most of the time consumed in a world of his own
- your child might insist on a rigid routine
How to diagnose autism?
Unfortunately, there are no medical tests that can diagnose autism. Psychologists and trained physicians evaluate the child based on autism-specific behavioral evaluations.
You are the one who spends the most time with your child and you should always follow your instincts when you have a feeling something’s off. At regular checkups, the doctor should watch for developmental milestones and unusual behavior as well as the growth and the physical aspect of your baby.
Doctors unfamiliar with autism diagnosis may dismiss your concerns and tell you your baby will eventually grow into the behavior but if you have a gut feeling this is not true, don’t hesitate to insist on your hunch or contact a specialized center that will refer you to doctors. Time is of the essence when it comes to an autism diagnosis.
There are certain tests and questionnaires you may take to help you decide whether to see your doctor about autism. The Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a type of said questionnaire. It provides you with a list of questions about your child and the answers can tell you if you need to see a specialist such as a psychologist or a developmental pediatrician. The M-CHAT is also used as a screening tool by physicians among other tests.
A typical evaluation consists of a number of doctors (pediatrician, psychologist, language and speech specialist and other therapists) as well as genetic testing and screenings for medical issues. This helps you understand your child better and fulfill his needs.
Dealing with autism
Dealing with autism can be stressful, especially when you’re new to the game. But there are a few basic points we can recommend you follow on a day to day basis. But don’t stress if you don’t get everything right on the first try, it’s a learning experience for all of us.
The first thing you should do is provide your child with structure and a safe zone. Be consistent in your requirements and while dealing with challenging behavior and teach your child the same structure in multiple environments. It’s also better to create and stick to a schedule that works for you and your child. Remember to reward good behavior. It doesn’t always have to be toys or sweets, rather something that motivates your child like a later bedtime, extra computer time while using praise explaining exactly what it is you’re rewarding.
Another important thing is to find ways you can communicate and connect with your child. Some children with autism can struggle with communication and talking in general but will give nonverbal clues expressing their needs and wants. As you are the person spending the most amount of time with them, you gain insight as to how they express emotions and other traits, but it’s also important to figure out motivations behind their ways to understand why they choose to communicate a certain way.
We’ve talked about providing a structure and a safe zone for your child. That’s extremely important so your little one knows what’s coming next and what is expected. But don’t take it to extremes. Another important thing for learning to cope with autism is making time for fun activities and playtime. Because your baby boy or girl are still only children who love to play! Learn what they love best and include these activities in your fun time together, it’s a great way to bond.
Creating a treatment plan modified to your child’s needs is vital. All children are different and the scale of the autism spectrum disorder is very wide, so what works for one child will not work for another. Your pediatrician and other specialists will assist you in creating the perfect treatment plan for your child to suit their needs.
It will take into account strengths and weaknesses as well as what behaviors cause the most problems. It will also consider how he or she learns and communicates best and what activities and other things he or she enjoys most.
What might not sound as though it is crucial is learning about autism? There are numerous support groups throughout the country and the whole world for the matter. We live in the information age and the age of social media and finding answers to various questions has never been easier. Even if you live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, you can still connect through social media with other parents to share insight and knowledge.
And the most important thing of all, accept your child for who they are. Your child is one of a kind, quirks and all. Practice acceptance rather than focus on the differences between other children and your „baby“. The easiest things said are usually the hardest done. But try to learn not to compare your child with others and try to focus on small successes and victories. All children deserve to feel loved unconditionally.