Seeing the early signs
What is autism?
Autism is a disorder where a person has difficulty with communicating and interacting with others. There are many forms of autism that can vary from mild to severe.
There are 3 major categories of symptoms in autism:
Social interaction-Children show difficulty interpreting other’s emotions or difficulty in making appropriate eye contact.
Communication-Speech is often delayed or non-existent. In addition there are limited other attempts to try and communicate with others (lack of hand signals, expressions, etc).
Limited interests-Children show very specific interests and lack of interest in other activities.
So, that is the definition…here’s my practical look at how the diagnosis of autism usually evolves.
Up to 12 months-There are very few suspicions of autism prior to the first year of life. Occasionally, a family will pick up on a lack of eye contact or limited verbalization but this is uncommon.
12-15 months-Families and doctors will begin to notice that a child is not progressing in their speech development appropriately. Speech therapy referrals can be made at this time to begin appropriate therapy and to monitor development more closely.
15-18 months-Speech development will continue to lag behind and the other abnormal behaviors will continue to become more obvious. Many diagnoses can be made during this time, especially in severe cases.
What do I look for in a diagnosis of autism?
The main symptoms I look for when consulting with a family about autism is a “lack of joint attention.” An example of joint attention is when a child is playing with a toy they enjoy, they will occasionally bring it over to you and engage you in play with them. Another example is when an adult points to a plane in the sky and the child looks in the direction of the point. When I have a family with a concern about autism, I present both of these examples to the family. If the child does show these behaviors, autism is very unlikely and parents can be reassured. If they do not, further investigation and a possible referral to a developmental pediatrician could be in order.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Cook Children’s Pediatrics Lewisville. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his three young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.