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Early diagnosis of autism can lead to early treatment

TUESDAY, APRIL 27, 2010

As we wrap up National Autism Awareness month, I am reminded of what a friend of mine said to me about her daughter: “I wish I had acted on my first concern instead of waiting.”

It is difficult to contemplate that your child might not be meeting developmental milestones or that their behavior might be “different.” But we now know that children on the autism spectrum who begin appropriate therapies and treatments at a very young age are much more likely to reach their full potential as adults.

There are three recognized types of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder – not otherwise specified.

All can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASDs can manifest themselves in different ways in different children and at different ages.

Behaviors that may be a cause for further evaluation include:

•a child not responding to his or her name by 12 months;

•not pointing at objects to show interest (i.e., pointing at an airplane flying over) by 14 months;

•not playing “pretend” games (such as “feeding” a doll) by 18 months;

•avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone;

•having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings;

•having delayed speech and language skills;

•repeating words or phrases over and over (echolalia);

•giving unrelated answers to questions;

•getting upset by minor changes;

•having obsessive interests;

•flapping the hands, rocking the body or spinning in circles;

•having unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look or feel.

You can read about signs and symptoms of autism in more detail at www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/ autism/signs.html.

A child may not have an ASD just because they exhibit any of these behaviors. But because the characteristics of ASD vary so much, your child should get a comprehensive evaluation if you notice any of the things listed above or have other reasons to be concerned.

Addressing even the slightest concerns early makes all the difference. If you have concerns, talk it over with your child’s health care provider.

If your child is under 3 years old, call the Washington Family Health Hotline at (800) 322-2588 to connect with services in your local area that will help your child meet developmental milestones.

If your child is over 3, call the Spokane Regional Health District’s Children with Special Health Care Needs division at (509) 324-1697 to get information on services and programs available.

If your child is diagnosed as having an ASD, you will want to work with a multidisciplinary team of professionals knowledgeable about autism to develop an appropriate therapy and treatment plan.

There are many different types of therapies and treatments for people with an ASD. Each person’s treatment needs to be individualized and may even need to be changed from time to time as he or she grows older.

A therapy that worked wonders for one child with ASD might or might not be helpful to another child, so keep an open mind.

Communication between the child’s parents, health care providers, autism specialists and teachers is a crucial component to improving developmental outcome.

What if the child you are concerned about is not your child, but a friend’s child? Should you say something?

This is a difficult subject and I do not really have an answer for you. But I do have some insight from that same friend who wishes she had acted earlier:

“If you notice my kid isn’t normal and you say something to me, either

1) I already know and am freaked out about it, but now I feel like everyone must know so I feel even more freaked out and now I’m going to worry that my kid and my parenting is being judged, or

2) I didn’t realize my kid was delayed and now that you have mentioned it to me, I feel like maybe you think I’m a terrible parent ’cause I didn’t know something was wrong with my kid.”

There’s a lot of anxiety bound up in that insight, so if you decide to say something, be as gentle, loving, supportive, nonjudgmental and caring as you possibly can.

Dr. Alisa Hideg is a family medicine physician at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center in Spokane. Her column appears every other Tuesday in the Today section. Send your questions and comments to drhideg@ghc.org.


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