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Reading the Signs

We have been writing this column for more than three years now. We have felt strongly about many of the subjects we have addressed. However this month’s topic takes the cake in terms of its importance in our lives and the lives of countless others. The topic is the early detection of autism.

Autism, a disorder of unknown origins, is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the United States. Autism spectrum disorders are characterized by significant impairments in social interaction and communication, and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. An estimated one in 166 children is diagnosed with autism.

In our family, this plague has hit home. Our son was diagnosed with autism about seven years ago.

It is not a time we care to recall. There were many dismal days right after Holden’s diagnosis. At the time there did not seem to be a lot to be thankful for. But looking back, we are now profoundly grateful for our son’s early diagnosis.

We are grateful for a pediatrician who listened to our concerns. We are grateful for a speech therapist who was observant and involved. We are thankful for a developmental psychologist who detected our son’s autism at a young age. At a desperate time, these little mercies made all of the difference.

Sadly, many cases of autism in young children are missed at regular medical checkups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that half of all children with autism or similar developmental disorders aren’t diagnosed until ages 4 to 6, yet diagnosis can be made as early as 18 months.

The first three years are crucial to an autistic person’s development. Intensive, well-designed and timely intervention can offer an autistic child greater chances for future productivity and inclusion in society. A delay in diagnosis may deny him these opportunities.

So, what are some of the signs we should be looking for in our toddlers? Autism Speaks, one of the largest and most prominent informational groups, includes the following in its list of red flags in young children:

• No big smiles or other warm expressions by 6 months or older.

•No back-and-forth sharing of smiles or sounds.

• No babbling by 12 months.

• No pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months.

• No words by 16 months.

• Any loss of speech or babbling or social skills at any age.

We started to suspect something was different about Holden by 15 months. He was quiet and didn’t babble like other babies. He liked to play by himself and was not really interested in other family members.

When Holden was about 18 months old, we once pointed out a herd of dairy cows on the road—a sight that would have delighted our older son at that age. Holden just seemed to look past it. He never got excited or pointed out new discoveries like other children. Sometimes he would have unexplainable outbursts, almost anxiety attacks, that would leave us guessing as to how we had upset his world so badly.

These quirky little behaviors added up to something out of the norm. The final straw occurred at 18 months when he stopped saying the two words he knew, indicating a loss of speech. That was the red flag our pediatrician was looking for. The rest of the process moved swiftly thanks to professionals who helped us get an early diagnosis.

If you suspect that your child might have a developmental delay, make an appointment with your pediatrician promptly. Don’t be fainthearted. A parent sometimes has an intuition about a child that the best-trained doctor will never have. Empower yourself with the knowledge that you are your child’s best, and sometimes only, advocate.

We understand how painful it is when you realize your child is not developing typically. We were tempted to insist that since Holden did not have all the usual symptoms, there was a chance the developmental pediatrician was wrong, but we resisted that temptation.

Sometimes, people imagine that if they don’t acknowledge a problem then it is not there anymore. It takes us back to when we were young and thought we saw a monster on the wall of our bedroom. Hiding our heads under the blankets made the monster go away.

Autism is a monster, but it is not going away. Denying it only hurts your child and his chances of early intervention. If there is any indication that your child is not developing typically, seek help. If your pediatrician does not refer your child for an evaluation, but you still feel uneasy, call the local Early Intervention Program office at the Onondaga County Health Department, 435-3230. If your child is age 3 or older, call your school district for an evaluation.

An autistic child has many challenges ahead, but with early intervention some of these challenges can be addressed in time to lessen their effects. And in the end a child diagnosed with autism is still a child, your child—a precious, beautiful gift. Let’s give our children every chance to reach their highest potential. That’s a gift, as parents, we can give them.      

Alan and Kelly Taylor live in Liverpool with their five children, including an infant. Kelly holds a master’s degree in family studies; Alan is an assistant professor in Syracuse University’s department of child and family studies.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York