Autism Spectrum Disorder: Do you know the signs to look for in your child?

The American Academy of Pediatrics defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a group of related developmental disabilities that affect a child’s behavior as well as social and communication skills. On one end of the spectrum is Asperger’s Syndrome, characterized by social delays without speech issues. On the other end are those with severe autism. These children can be completely non-verbal and display behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking, head banging and poor eye contact.  The majority of children diagnosed with an ASD fall somewhere in the middle – in the mild-to-moderate range of autism. So we talked with Dr. Alexis Phillips-Walker who practices at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Pediatrics Atascocita. Here’s what she feels parents need to know about ASD.

Q: How common is autism?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, which requires more definitive diagnostic testing, estimates the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the United States at 1 in every 88 children. Because males with ASD outnumber females 4 to 1, this translates into an incidence of 1 in 54 males and 1 in 252 females.  This recent estimated prevalence rate represents an increase of 23 percent compared with the 2006 estimate of 1 in 110 children.

Q: Who should be screened for an ASD?

A:  The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2007 recommended to pediatric clinicians that all 18 and 24-month-old children be screened for an ASD. Diagnosing autism early allows parents to have access to intensive behavioral treatments (i.e., applied behavioral analysis) that can ultimately improve a child’s overall outcome in language, adaptive behaviors, academic performance and IQ.

Q: How early do symptoms appear?

A:  Symptoms begin within the first three years of life. The number of diagnoses continues to increase. It is unknown if this is due to a true increase in prevalence or a result of more accurate screening and testing.

Q: How is ASD diagnosed?

A: The first step in diagnosis is a series of tests that assess behavior, communication, and social skills. Once autism is confirmed, children can undergo genetic and metabolic testing. As genetic testing becomes more advanced, more causes of autism are being found. Up to 40 percent of the time, a genetic or metabolic test will show a potential cause for the child’s autism. A blood draw for genome sequencing is also available and can shed light on possible causes.

Q: How is autism treated?

A: While we don’t know of a cure for autism, we do know some ways to treat it. Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA, is one of the few things shown to dramatically improve symptoms. It’s a scientifically validated method of treatment that involves a specific approach to behavior modification.

Some parents insist their children improve with dietary changes – most notably a gluten-free, casein-free diet. Why some children respond is unclear, but it may be due to an underlying metabolic disorder.

Q: What should you do if you suspect your child has an ASD?

A: Most of the time, it’s parents who raise the red flag when autism is suspected, but physicians should also screen for it during well-child checkups. This is very important, because the sooner an ASD is confirmed, the sooner intensive therapy can begin.

If you are at all concerned about autism, don’t ignore it and don’t be afraid to voice your concerns to your pediatrician. Early diagnosis and early intervention is critical in helping children to reach their full potential.

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