A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

A parent’s role in spotting autism early

Children coloring

Imagine the difficulty of having an infant who does not respond to your voice or smile. At age 1, she doesn’t babble or say “mama” and doesn’t turn to look at you when you speak.

But the good news is that, in many cases, parents can play an important role by reporting key developmental milestones that are not occurring on schedule. Especially at a child’s age of 1 year or less, parental diligence can play a major role in the treatment for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autism: What to watch for

“It creeps up on parents,” said Dr. Traci Swink, a Marshfield Clinic developmental specialist with training in autism and related disorders. “A common thing we hear from parents is a growing feeling that their child is in some respects ‘slipping away.’ Toys or sights and sounds in their environment suddenly become more important and self-absorbing to the child than the parent.”

Parents often wonder first if their child is deaf, which usually triggers a hearing test. If that’s fine, attention turns to a “social processing problem,” such as autism spectrum disorder.

This developmental disorder affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate with others. They rarely talk, if at all. Autism spectrum disorder can also result in restrictive, repetitive patterns of abnormal behavior, such as rocking. Children with the disorder may not want to be held by a parent and may cry because they’re sensitive to movement. These children may be more comfortable lying on the floor.

Jumping the track

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the incidence of autism spectrum disorder is rising, from one in 150 children in 2000 to one in 68 in 2010. That’s mainly because of increased awareness and improved screening methods.

Swink uses a train track analogy to describe the disorder.

“When we talk about autism, we’re talking about a train that has jumped the normal trajectory track and now is off on its own, what we call an atypical developmental trajectory,” she said. “If we leave this train on that track, by age 3 a child will have significant challenges.”

Treatment of a child with autism spectrum disorder is much more difficult and intense if not begun at an early age.  When this happens, the child’s development may not return or get closer to the normal path.

Minimizing the challenges

“On the other hand, if we can identify a child at 18 months, use resources and support the parents in daily interactions with the child, we can make a tremendous difference and can move far more children onto a normal or typical development,” she said. “We can really minimize the challenges that are so pervasive.”

Parents play a key role in identifying the earliest symptoms of autism spectrum disorders. If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to share them with your child’s primary care provider, who may make a referral to a developmental specialist.

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