Recent research states that autism spectrum disorder effects 1 in 100 individuals, which is up from 1 in 2,000 in 1994, says Donald P. Gallo, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist who specializes in autism and author of “Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Lifespan Perspective.”
Doctors are now moving toward diagnosing children with autism spectrum disorder, a broad diagnosis that allows doctors to focus on the child’s individual symptoms rather than placing them in a category, says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Doctors and other experts can diagnose children with disabilities as young as two or three years old, and Gallo recommends getting treatment for a child with autism as soon as possible. “The earlier we can take care of these issues, the better,” he says.
After finding out that your child has autism, Gallo and Landa suggest asking these questions to further your knowledge on the disorder and what to expect.
1. Do you specialize in autism or know someone who does? When seeking help for autistic children, it’s important that parents talk to experts on the disorder. The professional should know typical and abnormal child development. They should gather information from the parents about the child’s past and spend time with the child to understand his/her behavioral tendencies. Unlike those professionals who are less familiar with autism, specialists can recognize symptoms in even high-functioning autistic individuals.
2. Did I do this to my child? Parents should understand that they did not cause this. Autism can be genetic, and research suggests that older mothers and fathers have a higher risk of autism, but this is not always the case.
3. What symptoms will my child have? Some autism warning signs include anti-social behavior, a disinterest in others, or an obsession with activities like watching the water run or spinning cars’ wheels. Because every child with autism displays different characteristics of the disorder and some are more severe than others, it’s important that doctors look at each child individually. However, most autistic children have socialization difficulties, language problems and behavioral oddities.
Children with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, typically develop language skills at the appropriate age and can function in a regular classroom, but they may have trouble interacting with their peers. They also usually have normal to above normal IQ levels.
4. What therapies does my child need? Early intervention and other federally-funded programs, can help autistic kids with language, behavior and social skills. While it’s important for elementary-aged autistic children to learn academically, they should also have a socialization component to teach them how to make friends and interact with others.
Speech therapy helps with various speech problems, from overall language deficiencies to simple articulation problems and how to hold conversations. An occupational therapist deals with gross and fine motor skills, helping autistic children button buttons, jump or climb stairs. Occupational therapists can also help with sensory integration issues, including sensitivity to noise, clothing textures or pain. Finally, psychologists can examine cognitive abilities and therefore help to manage the child’s educational program.
Some of these specialists may adopt a method called applied behavior analysis to help your child learn. This may involve a type of intervention known as pivotal response teaching — a method that examines what stimulants, like spoken words or visual input, will help your child respond. This may include making instructions very simple or creating easy-to-follow routines.
5. What about alternative treatments? Parents may try alternative treatments like diet changes, vitamins and vaccines. Some parents have also tried chelation, a treatment to remove heavy metals from the body, which should be closely monitored by a specialist as it has many risk factors. Most of these methods, however, have not been validated by mainstream scientific research.
6. How soon should we start therapy? The sooner you identify autism and seek services, the sooner the child may overcome his/her difficulties. Schools play an important role in helping the child, and parents should talk to administrators and teachers about getting their child the help that they need.
7. Will autism affect my child physically? Autism is more of a disorder that affects the brain. However, autistic children may have sensory issues, including sensitivity to food textures, which could affect them physically. Some doctors also suggest that they are more prone to seizures.
8. What can I do, as a parent, to help my child? Speech therapy services work best to help an autistic child communicate, but parents can help by talking to the therapist, learning the techniques they use to improve the child’s communication, and implementing these techniques at home. Therapists may also recommend toys and books to buy and programs autistic children should participate in.
Parents should also learn developmental strategies, which experts can help with. These may include discipline tactics that cater to the child’s special needs. Behavior management strategies are also important , which may include creating picture schedules so that the child can adjust to changes. Making activities fun while helping the child learn language skills and participate in social engagement are all important for the child’s development. Finally, parents should remember to set up play dates with other children to help their child interact with peers.
9. Are there any medications for my child? There are currently no medications that cure autism. However, a psychiatrist or pediatrician may recommend certain medications for specific symptoms. For example, if the child is very aggressive, they may take drugs to calm down. Or, if the child suffers from depression, doctors may recommend anti-depressants. Doctors should try to address these problems without medications first, but they are a good alternative.
10. Will my child ever get better? If you seek help for your autistic child early, the symptoms may improve greatly and your child may be less affected by the disorder. It takes extra effort and assistance from therapists and school officials, but your autistic child may eventually function highly and succeed in careers and relationships that suit him/her.