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What parents should know about autism

Autism is considered a “spectrum” because it often looks different for each person. One person’s autism symptoms may even change over time. This range, or spectrum, can lead to misunderstandings. Here’s what you should know. 

What is autism?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a brain-based developmental disability that can affect a person’s behavior, communication and social interaction. The CDC reports 1 in 54 children have ASD. It is important to not make assumptions about someone who might have autism because people can have a wide range of abilities.

People on the spectrum can have very different needs. Some individuals need small supports in some areas of life, while some face major challenges that impact their physical health, mental health and independence.

What causes autism?

There is a lot of research currently happening about autism. What we do know is no “one-thing” causes autism. Vaccines do not cause autism. Researchers have learned about some genetic differences which can cause autism, but this is not true for all people with autism. Other factors, like a complex pregnancy or extreme prematurity, can increase the chances a child is diagnosed with autism.

What are the signs?

We can diagnose autism for some children by 18-24 months, but many are diagnosed later in childhood. It is even possible to be diagnosed as an adult. When possible, it is important to identify autism earlier, so we can provide support to the child sooner. Here are things to watch for in toddlers:

  • Reduced eye contact.
  • Less smiling in response to your smiles.
  • Less use of gestures like pointing or waving.
  • Speech delays.

If you are concerned about your child’s development at any age, talk with your pediatrician. They may conduct a screening and will make recommendations based on your child’s specific needs. For example, they might refer you to a Hearing and Speech Clinic, school-based services, or encourage you to contact a center like the Autism Clinic at Children’s Mercy

What does an autism evaluation and support like?

When we evaluate for autism, we’re gathering a lot of information. A psychologist or developmental-behavioral pediatrician will interview you, and work with your child to see where they are developmentally and socially. Whether or not a child is diagnosed with autism, there are many intervention services available to help children based on their needs.

There is no cure for autism. Interventions are focused on the things causing difficulties, such as delayed speech or frequent tantrums. Supports for a child with autism will be individualized, meaning they will focus on unique goals for a child and should build on the child’s strengths and interests. Common supports include ABA, or applied behavioral analysis, special education, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy. Autism can be linked with health challenges like sleep or feeding problems, so children may need medical support in these areas, too.

Some people may not have concerns about their own child but may know someone with autism. I recommend people watch the Just Like You- Autism video to help understand what autism is like and use it as a resource to start a conversation. Maybe your neighbor, or child’s classmate, or even a sibling has been diagnosed with ASD — it’s a great video to watch together.

Finally, remember children with autism grow up to become teens and then adults! Support looks different across the lifespan and autistic adults, who may prefer that term instead of a “person with autism,” deserve the same opportunities to flourish as everyone else.

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Child Psychology

Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine