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Autism Awareness: The Importance of Early Detection

Over 3.5 million Americans live with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which includes Autistic Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger Syndrome, is a developmental disability that manifests through social interaction, communication skills, and behavior. While someone with ASD might communicate, interact, behave and learn in ways different from others, there isn’t usually anything that sets them apart physically.

Autism is the most common autism spectrum disorder and is the fastest growing developmental disability in the US. In 2004, 1 out of 125 people (.8%) were diagnosed with autism and, in 2014, 1 out of 68 people (~ 1.5%) were diagnosed, and increase of ~ .7%. The level of help required for those with ASD varies and the learning, thinking and problem solving capabilities could range from gifted to severely challenged.  Since there is no cure for autism, early screening and detection is imperative.  Detection can occur as early as (if not before) 18 months, and early intervention can occur from birth to 3 years.

Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be broken into two stages:

  1. Well-child checkups: Children should receive well-child checkups where specific ASD screenings are performed at 18 and 24 months.  Earlier screening would be necessary if a child is at a high risk for ASD, i.e., those who have a sibling or other family members with ASD, those who show some signs/symptoms or ASD behaviors, or those born prematurely.
  2. Subsequent evaluations: Additional evaluations with a team of physicians and other health professionals who are experienced (or specialize) in diagnosing ASD.  These evaluations are different than the 1st stage in that they assess language ability, the child’s cognitive level (or thinking skills), certain age-appropriate skills (or milestones) that are needed to complete daily activities independently as well as blood and hearing tests.

It’s important to learn the signs and symptoms of Autism – although children develop at their own pace and there are developmental milestones for children to reach at certain ages that will measure developmental progress.  You can view these milestones on the CDC website.  Being aware of these milestones can help with early detection.

Signs and Symptoms of Autism

The ability of a child with ASD to walk might be the same as a child who doesn’t have ASD; however, there may be delays in language, learning, and social skills.  A child with ASD could have trouble with social activities but might find putting puzzle pieces together or solving computer problems easy.  Easy skills, like the sound a letter makes, could be more difficult than reading words.  A child may have ASD if he or she exhibits one or a combination of the following behaviors:

  • Avoids eye-contact
  • Does not respond to his/her name by age 1
  • Shows no interest in other people / prefers to play alone
  • Only interacts to achieve a desired goal
  • Has flat or inappropriate facial expressions
  • Does not understand personal space boundaries
  • Has trouble adapting when a routine changes
  • Avoids or resists physical contact
  • Is not comforted by others during distress
  • Has trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings

Communication Issues Related to ASD

Every child with ASD will have different communication skills:  some can speak well, others speak very little or cannot speak at all, and some won’t speak until later on in childhood.  Approximately 40 percent of children with ASD do not talk at all and about 25-30 percent of children with ASD do speak some words by age 1, or 1 ½, but lose that ability later.  Some communication issues related to ASD include:

  • Delayed speech and language skills
  • Repetition of words or phrases (over and over)
  • Providing unrelated answers to questions
  • Difficulty expressing needs
  • Lack of a response to pointing (or does not point)
  • Use of few or no gestures
  • Verbal communication is flat, robot-like, or is in a sing-song voice
  • Jokes, sarcasm, or teasing are not understood
  • Answers are unrelated to questions

Some other unusual interests and behaviors that are related to ASD could include:

  • Lining up toys or other objects
  • Playing with toys the same way every time
  • Being very organized
  • Getting upset at minor changes
  • Having obsessive interests or having to follow certain routines
  • Flapping of hands, rocking their bodies, or spinning themselves in circles

Intervention & Treatment for Autism

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a process in which interventions are applied to significantly improve socially significant behaviors and skills. ABA is the gold standard for ASD treatment.

Other interventions include Speech and Language Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Picture Exchange Communication System, Alternative and Augmentative Communication, Sensory Integration Therapy, and TEEACH (Training and Education of Autistic and Communication-related Handicapped Children).

Behaviors and skills that ABA treats include:

  • Reading
  • Academics
  • Social skills
  • Communication
  • Adaptive living skills

ABA treatment plans should be created individually and with parents’ involvement. If applied early, social interaction and communication results will be more impactful.  The ABA intervention can potentially improve the IQ of a child with ASD and studies using this treatment indicate a significant increase in developmental rates, language skills (listening and understanding) and social behavior, and a decrease in autism symptoms.

Delays in detecting ASD in children could make it increasingly difficult to detect as they grow older.  The younger the child, the more capable they are of learning new skills thus increasing the chance of improved long-term outcomes.

Why Do Puzzle Pieces Symbolize Autism?

Pieces of puzzles symbol reflects the mystery and complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Also, since every puzzle piece is different in some way, a puzzle piece accurately represents the diversity of the individuals affected.