Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, (ASD) is a neuro-divergent, categorized group of developmental disabilities that can affect a range of skills and child developmental processes. Autism is not contagious, nor is the direct cause of autism known.
Being autistic can impact a person’s life in several areas, including communication, social skills, social development, and behaviors. However, not every case of autism looks or presents itself the same, and people are often diagnosed on a spectrum.
Read on to understand more about what autism is, when symptoms begin to show, and what the process of diagnosing a person with autism may look like.
How Young Can Autism Spectrum Disorder be Detected?
Autism shows itself in child development, meaning that as a person develops and ages, certain neuro-divergences, and behavioral presentations begin to show. Autism can sometimes be detected in babies 18 months or younger, but that is frequently not the case.
Typically, an autistic person will have a diagnosis of autism by 2 years old. This is because as the child grows and develops, it is easier to see certain milestones they are surpassing or missing in comparison with their age group.
However, some people do not get diagnosed with autism until they are in their teens or even adulthood.
Having an early diagnosis of autism is very important so that the person can begin treatments that might be able to help them, such as speech therapy, educational therapy, applied behavioral therapy, or tactile occupational therapy.
What Are Some Early Signs of Autism?
There are many early signs of autism, but as stated before, each case of autism looks different and it can be hard to differentiate when a child is autistic or if they are struggling with certain behaviors or actions for other reasons.
That said, some of the most common early signs of autism are as follows:
- Avoiding Eye Contact: Often, a child with autism will avoid looking at others directly in their eyes. They may tilt their heads away or shift their eyes away from the faces of others. This is a sign of a behavioral and communicative symptom.
- Low Socialization: Children are often incredibly social creatures, who enjoy and find interest in others as they explore the world. If a child is showing little to no interest in other children or caretakers, they might be displaying a social symptom of autism.
- Limited Use of Language: Communication is a huge part of autism. Many people with autism show signs of struggling to communicate or have a hard time mastering language skills. They may miss milestones that their peers easily reach or may use alternative methods of communication, rather than spoken language. Sign language is a common alternative for non-verbal people with autism.
- Reliance on Routine: Getting upset by minor changes in the day-to-day routines of life is another sign of autism. Folks with autism rely on routines to feel safe and so that they know what is coming and can prepare themselves for it. So if your child always takes a bath at night and one day they need to bathe in the morning, this could cause them to get upset.
Process of Diagnosing Autism
The process of diagnosing autism spectrum disorder is broken down into two main parts that are both very important. They are as follow:
The first part is a screening where health care professionals look for a variety of communication, behavioral, and social developmental differences that line up with the diagnosis requirements of autism. Health care professionals will administer tests to make sure they can rule out any other developmental differences, like ADHD.
They will use several different types of assessing and testing so that they can definitively diagnose the person with autism as well as figure out the severity of the diagnosis so they can recommend treatments or therapies that may help the person to live an easier life.
Some of the tools that might be used in the screening process are :
- Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised with Follow-Up (M-CHAT-R/F): This is a brief checklist of yes and no items for early autism detection for children 16 months to 30 months of age
- Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R): a semi-structured interview where parents and specialists work together to make a diagnosis of ASD.
- Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic (ADOS-G): An interview with activities conducted by a trained specialist to make a concrete diagnosis.
- Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS): An observation of a child’s behavior and actions which is rated on a 15 point scale to see where the child’s relationships with people, body behaviors, adaptation to changes, listening skills, and communication skills are developmentally.
- ThinkAspergers: a screening tool in a mobile phone app that helps the informal detection of autism that can be used by teachers, parents, and medical professionals.
During the diagnosis meeting, you will hear from the medical professional whether your child has autism or not. During this meeting, the medical professional may refer you to some therapists who might be able to help you and your child create a better and easier life for your child.
They will also explain what they were looking at and why they came to the conclusion your child has autism.
What May a Doctor Look at During the Screening?
The following list is some of the things your doctor or health care professional may be looking for during the screenings and autism diagnosis process:
Child's developmental history:
- Did your baby begin smiling around 6 months?
- Did your baby mimic sounds and make facial expressions by 9 months?
- Was your baby cooing, babbling, and making noise by 12 months?
They may also ask about other behaviors, such as:
- Does your child exhibit repetitive or unusual behaviors?
- Does your child have trouble making direct eye contact?
- Is your child interacting with other people and sharing their experiences?
- Does your child respond to attempts to get their attention?
- Does your child have a vocal tone that could be described as “flat”?
- Does your child understand other people’s actions and behaviors?
- Is your child sensitive to inputs like noise, temperature, light, or textures?
- Does your child have sleep or digestive issues?
- Is your child likely to get irritable or annoyed quickly?
After the diagnosis
After an autism diagnosis, there are several steps that can be taken to ensure the individual receives the best possible support and care. The journey following an autism diagnosis may seem daunting, but there are numerous resources and treatment options available that can help.
One of the first steps after an autism diagnosis is to inform relevant parties such as the child's school. This allows the school to provide necessary accommodations and services like occupational therapy, speech therapy, and Applied Behavioral Therapy, which can significantly aid the child's development and learning.
It's also crucial to remember that it's okay to take some time to process the diagnosis. The initial period after receiving an autism diagnosis can be challenging, but support is readily available.
Various therapeutic interventions can help individuals with autism enhance their abilities and overcome challenges. Speech and Language Therapy is one of the most common developmental therapies for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It aids in improving communication skills, which are often a challenge for individuals with ASD.
Physical therapy can also be beneficial, especially for children facing movement issues. An occupational therapist can assist with sensory and motor skills. High-functioning individuals with autism can also benefit from specialized therapies tailored to their unique needs.
Post-diagnosis, it's essential not to let the diagnosis cause self-pity. Instead, count your blessings and focus on the positive aspects. While an autism diagnosis can initially seem overwhelming, there are many resources and treatments available that can help improve quality of life.
Moreover, research indicates that an early ASD diagnosis can lead to increases in intervention, which can bring about significant changes in parent-child interaction.
Finally, certain medications can be used as first-line treatment post-diagnosis, like methylphenidate or other stimulant medications. These can be particularly helpful in managing symptoms such as hyperactivity or impulsivity.
Remember that autism is common and your child can and will live a full and vibrant life, regardless of their diagnosis status. It is important to give them the best possible chance to succeed in their lives by putting them in the proper therapies that can help them learn to live with autism and overcome the limitations autism may impose on them.
Patience, understanding, and education will be your best tools as you begin to navigate this new aspect of your child’s life as well as your own.