Autism is a developmental disorder thought to be present at birth but usually not diagnosed until preschool or school age. It’s the result of a neurologic abnormality, but in most cases the underlying cause is unknown. Research shows there is a likely a genetic component, and metabolic, immunologic and environmental factors as well as underlying medical conditions may also influence its development.
If your child exhibits the following behaviors, you may need to seek medical advice:
• Seems distant; unaware of surroundings.
• Doesn’t play or interact well with others.
• Is uncommunicative.
• Has problems speaking or understanding others.
• Has uncontrollable temper tantrums.
• Insists on sameness and routine.
• Engages in repetitive or compulsive actions.
Early diagnosis and intervention has shown improved long-term outcomes.
Dr. Howard Schub of Child Neurology Associates in Atlanta, GA says research is being done to find ways to diagnose autism in infancy through behaviors such as eye contact. “It is difficult to detect at an early age because there is no specific test that confirms a diagnosis of autism. It’s based on behavioral observations and reports from family members.”
If you suspect your child has autism, there are screening tests that indicate if developmental problems are present. A widely used test is the CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers).
A pediatrician will refer a child to a developmental pediatrician or pediatric neurologist if further evaluation is necessary. Other specialists such as speech and language pathologists, an audiologist, or occupational and physical therapists may be involved in the evaluation process, which normally includes:
• Physical exam
• Complete medical history
• Hearing test
• Lead levels
• Genetic and metabolic test
• Speech and language assessments
• Cognitive, behavioral and academic assessments
Research has shown that regardless of the severity of the condition, early intervention and appropriate treatment and education help many children with autism become successfully integrated into their community.
Treatment strategies for autism will be explored in Part 3.