Autism is a neurological disorder that causes developmental disabilities. It usually appears by the time a child is 3 years old.
Autism affects each person differently in its negative effects on verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and even the ability to play. Some children with autism can be very bright although many have secondary conditions such as mental retardation or seizures. What is lacking in all children with autism, though, is their ability to relate to the world and other people the way the rest of us do. They do not see the things the same way. They do not respond the same way. They do not pick up the same clues that we do.
Parents may start to notice their child does not behave like other children. They may be slow, often very slow, to speak. Normally most children start speaking words once they become a year old and use simple sentences around two. Children with autism may not have said a word during this time, and the parents might worry that their child is hearing impaired.
Often children with autism do not smile or may have difficulty making eye contact. They often do not respond to their own name. It’s as though the parents or other people are not even there.
They may become obsessive, playing with only one toy for hours, or exhibit compulsive, repetitive behavior such as rocking in place or staring at their hands for long periods of time. Normal noises or change may be intolerable.
Child development varies greatly, so it may take time for parents to realize their child is not behaving the way other kids their age are. Parents should always share any concerns with their child’s pediatrician who can either reassure them that they child’s behavior is normal or investigate further. In the case of not talking, the doctor can order a hearing test. After all, if the child has a problem – whatever it is – the sooner it is diagnosed and treated, the better.
There are no tests specifically for autism, however. Tests are run to check for other things, such as blood tests, EEGs, MRIs, as well as the hearing test mentioned earlier, to see if there are other explanations. Determining autism is actually more of a team effort, though, with your pediatrician as well as pediatric specialists (such as a neurologist, psychologist and speech and language therapist) observing your child’s behavior.
Diagnosing autism early is essential because children with autism benefit, often greatly, from specialized treatment from doctors, therapists and teachers trained to work with children with autism, and the earlier treatment starts, the better.