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What is Autism?

Autism is a spectrum that touches each child differently.

Autism spectrum disorder is exactly that – a spectrum – that leads to unique strengths and challenges for each individual.

play-button WHAT IS AUTISM?

Defining Autism, Clinically Speaking.

While the range of autism is broad and the term means something different to everyone, it is still important to understand the scientific definition so children can be properly diagnosed and receive the care they need for a better life. In clinical terms, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological, developmental disorder that can cause social, communication and behavioral challenges. ASD is one diagnosis that ranges from low-functioning autism to high-functioning autism. In the past, Asperger’s Syndrome was commonly viewed as a separate diagnosis, but the current definition includes it along the spectrum.

What does it look like? In a child, it could be difficulties communicating or socializing with others, paired with restrictive or repetitive behaviors, interests or activities that tend to get in the way of other important skills.

Signs of Autism

Signs & Symptoms of Autism

Lack of communication or social skills

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Preference of alone time

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Challenges with change

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Sensory sensitivities

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Repetitive behaviors or restricted interests

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View Lack of communication or social skills

Often the earliest sign of autism to be noticed, a lack of communication or social skills can appear in a number of ways.

Infants typically use “social smiles” to communicate, so the absence of them could be a sign of ASD. Practice lots of smiles and see if they reciprocate over the first few months.

Soon after the first few weeks of life, babies get used to their new surroundings and learn how their bodies work. Between birth and three months, you should notice your child locks eyes with you. Observe whether they make or avoid eye contact and if they begin to reciprocate when you smile at them.

While we do not like to put a specific timeline on verbal communication as children develop at different paces, there are a few things to observe. By six months old, does your baby babble or imitate sounds? After waking in the morning, riding in the car or while playing with stuffed animals, babies often babble on their own as a stepping stone to talking.

Next, listen for words. By 2 years old, you should expect to hear two-word phrases. Around the same time, see if your child seems to listen or respond when you speak. Conversation comes in stages, so if one or all of these steps is missing – or has regressed – along the way, there may be a type of speech delay worth discussing with your pediatrician. Contact us for help getting a referral.

View Preference of alone time

By the time children hit toddler age, they often engage in parallel play. They may not fully speak to each other or understand sharing at this age (you may hear a lot of, “mine!”), but they are typically comfortable being near another toddler when playing. During preschool years, the play should become more interactive.

During these stages, monitor whether your child prefers to be alone rather than playing next to you or other kids. If there is a preference of solitary time or a strong discomfort around other kids, we recommend discussing the challenge with a professional. To learn how our team can put you in touch with one of our psychologists, please drop us a line.

View Challenges with change

Big changes can be frustrating for anyone, and this is especially true for young children who are learning how things work and flow. But, if your child has an especially negative reaction to little changes in routine, it may be a sign of something more.

Does your child get unusually upset if you take a different route during your morning walk? Is there a tantrum if you sit in a different chair at dinner? If your kiddo has an extreme reaction to small changes, it’s worth mentioning to a physician to dig deeper. Need someone else to talk to?

View Sensory sensitivities

Sensory challenges associated with autism usually occur in older children rather than babies or toddlers, since the younger kiddos are still getting used to their senses. This symptom can appear as a really strong or unusual reaction to lights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes.

As one example, this could mean a limited diet due to an intolerance for certain textures. Or maybe your child will only wear t-shirts made from a certain fabric or is inconsolable after hearing a car horn.

Whether it is autism or another sensory disorder, talk about the issues with the pediatrician in an effort to find some solace, and contact us for an evaluation.

View Repetitive behaviors or restricted interests

For children a bit older, keep an eye on repetitive actions and extreme interest in specific topics.

It’s natural for babies to mimic and echo words, but if you notice the flapping of hands, constant spinning in circles or even a less noticeable habit with their fingers, the behaviors could be a symptom of autism when paired with other signs.

Like repetitive behaviors, the range of what restricted interests can look like is quite wide since it is unique to each individual. One child may be incredibly into dinosaurs; memorizing every type and pronunciation. Another might be hyper-focused on the letters of the alphabet and the order of them. The key with this sign is that for these individuals, it is all about reciting the information rather than developing a deeper understanding or interest in conversing with others about it.

If you have a concern with any of these areas, it doesn’t necessarily mean your child has autism or any other developmental disorder. Either way, it’s important to discuss these challenges with professionals. Reach out to us so we can help get you answers.

Seek a Diagnosis Now

In an ideal world, everyone could get answers immediately, but that is not always the case. At Hopebridge, our Diagnostics Team and Care and Benefits Coordinators work together to get families answers up to six times sooner than other providers – some of which can take up to a year on a waiting list. Even with our quick service, every moment counts.

Don’t just take our word for it; hear it from other parents. When we asked caregivers who have been in similar situations as you, all of them had similar advice:

“Do not wait. Had we known then what we do now, we would have engaged with professionals earlier. Get aggressive…you can’t help your child move forward until you seek a diagnosis.”

If you suspect there are missed milestones or other challenges and want to take a more active role in your child’s health, there are quick, at-home autism-screening tools available, like the M-CHAT. You can share the results with your pediatrician to discuss whether to take the next step for a more formal developmental and autism evaluation, which we can offer to children as young as 18 months.

To learn more about the evaluation process or schedule an assessment at Hopebridge, read through the simple steps to a diagnosis as outlined by one of our clinical psychologists, Dr. Ann Hetzel, who is also a parent to an individual on the spectrum.

Autism Myths

ASD does not make a person any more or less intelligent and it isn’t an illness others can “catch.” In your quest for more information on autism, it’s crucial to speak to reputable providers and research credible sites. There is a lot of misinformation floating around, so we wrote about the most common autism misconceptions to help you navigate the truth.

The autism diagnosis may seem like a “label,” but it does not define a person. Learning a loved one is on the spectrum can be nerve-wracking, but that discovery is also the first step (and often the hardest) toward unveiling this child’s world and possibilities to prepare them for school and beyond.

Importance of Early Identification

Simply put, the faster you identify whether your child has autism, the faster you can intervene with effective treatments to lay the foundation for a more fulfilling life (for each of you!).

The brain is most easily shaped within an individual’s first 7 years of life, making the power of learning incredibly greater in those first several years. It is especially important to take advantage of this time period (starting with toddlers as young as 18 months!) from the standpoint of language development, as well as to build other critical skills that allow them to gain independence and improve overall quality of life.

In addition to optimizing learning from a young age, early identification and early intensive behavioral interventions like Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA therapy) are key to catching impeding behaviors before they become habit. Whether or not your kiddo’s behaviors or delays are related to autism, the sooner you find out, the sooner you put your own mind at ease and get them real help.

What is the Biggest Challenge Presented to Kids Diagnosed with Autism?

Preparing for School and Other Life Skills

Children who have autism present special challenges in the educational system. Many schools we work with are eager to serve students with ASD, however the kids may not have the skills the schools require, and the schools may not be equipped with the services they need to succeed. With our center-based therapy model at Hopebridge, we don’t wish to replace school, but rather, prepare kids for the classroom.

Studies show children with ASD who receive at least two to four years of early intensive behavioral interventions, like ABA therapy, have much higher chances at success in regular education classrooms than those without the same type of treatment (Sallows and Graupner 2005).

The earlier you start therapy, the less likely you’ll need to delay school.

The risks of being ill-prepared are high. Why should they lack cognitive development, integration and social opportunity, when the skills they need are covered within ABA and other complementary therapies before they ever enter the classroom?

WHY OUR CENTER-BASED THERAPY IS THE MOST EFFECTIVE SCHOOL PREP

If one of the goals for your child is to send him or her to school, let us help you both get there. Learn more about how we can focus on school readiness within our Hopebridge360 program, starting at as early as 18 months of age.

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References:

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
  2. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/facts-about-autism
  3. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1099-078X(199811)13:4%3C201::AID-BIN17%3E3.0.CO;2-R
  4. http://cvap.org/userfiles/files/1987_Lovaas_Study.pdf