We’ve probably all heard of autism by now. It’s a word that frightens and confuses many. The latest statistics show 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism, with a 1 in 54 rate for boys.
In case you’re not well-versed, autism is a genetically-linked, brain-based, developmental disorder that manifests in the early years of a child’s life, prior to age 3. It involves difficulties with communication, social interaction, and repetitive or stereotyped behaviors (such as rocking back and forth or insisting on lining up objects). Many children with autism also experience difficulties with sensory processing. This means they may demonstrate either an over- or under-reactivity to certain kinds of sensory input (like touch, sound, or movement), or they may demonstrate sensory seeking behaviors. Many present with a mix of all 3.
The cause of autism is unknown, and theories abound. Treatment options vary, ranging from those backed by scientific evidence to others informed by individual experience or media hype.
Regardless of your opinion on the cause or course of autism, one thing is for sure: early identification is crucial. The earlier a child can be identified as “at risk” or diagnosed with autism, the sooner he or she can begin early intervention treatments such as ABA (applied behavior analysis…”behavioral therapy”), occupational, speech, or physical therapy. When begun early enough (by age 3 or earlier), these treatments are often effective in helping children learn skills necessary to enhance their development, improve independence in daily function and, sometimes, lose their diagnosis by the time they enter kindergarten.
Early identification and intervention are key.
As an occupational therapist working in an early intervention setting, this topic is near and dear to my heart. Although I am a professional who works with these precious kiddos on a daily basis, I want parents and caregivers to know you don’t have to be an expert in the field of child development to identify a child who may be at risk for autism.
Below are three things to keep in mind to assist with the early identification of autism:
1. Head lag at 6 months of age. This means that, when the baby is pulled up from a laying-down position on her back to a sitting position, her head dangles back and she has a very hard time bringing her head forward to line up with her body. Babies typically develop the ability to keep their head in line with their body during a pull-to-sit test by 4 months of age. A very recent study has shown head lag at 6 months of age to be a significant red flag for autism. In this study, 90% of the children who were diagnosed with autism exhibited head lag as 6-month-old babies. Let me be clear: this does NOT mean a baby will for sure develop autism if she demonstrates head lag at 6 months. But it does mean she is at a higher risk. Watch the clip below to see what head lag looks like and click here to see what typical head/neck motor control looks like in the pull-to-sit test.
2. Lack of pointing at people and objects by 1 year of age. When a child points to an object (say, the big garbage truck coming toward the house or the picture on the wall), he is engaging in something called “joint attention”. This is important for the development of communication skills, and kids with autism often struggle with it. Prior to being able to point at objects, babies develop the ability to look where someone else is pointing. You’ll see them start to practice this skill by looking at your finger and then following the imaginary line it makes over to the object you’re pointing at. This skill is often expected to emerge by 9 months of age. It is a precursor to pointing and is also a big contributor to the development of joint attention.
3. See a developmental pediatrician. Unlike regular kids’ doctors, developmental pediatricians are trained to identify, diagnose, and recommend therapy services for children with a variety of developmental and behavioral challenges, including autism. Those who hold the official title of “developmental-behavioral pediatrician” can be few and far between, but you can search based on zip code by clicking here. If you can’t find any in your area, you can search for a regular pediatrician who has clinical experience working with children and families with autism. Still no luck? If you live in the state of California (the state whose system I am currently a part of), you can contact your local Regional Center directly to request a FREE developmental evaluation. Click here for a directory of the 21 Regional Centers throughout California.
The earlier these kiddos are identified, the sooner they can receive services, and the better chance they have at developing the skills they need to reach their potential…and isn’t that what we want for every child? Let’s work together to make sure that happens!
- 30-Second Test Can Help Diagnose Autism in Infants (usnews.com)
- Head Lag May Be Sign of Autism (abcnews.go.com)
- New Test Could Detect Autism Early (kstp.com)
- Test for autism at 6 months (miamiherald.com)