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How to Identify Early Signs of Autism: What Parents Need to Know

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects communication, social interaction, and behavior. It typically appears in early childhood, and early detection and intervention can greatly impact a child’s development.

As a parent, grandparent or caregiver, it’s essential to be aware of the early signs of autism and seek professional evaluation if you have concerns about your child’s development.

In this article, we will take you through the essential information you need to know about Autism and ASD, as well as an overview of the condition in Canada.

What is autism?

Autism, according to the clinical model, is a lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that affects the way a person communicates and interacts with others and the world around them. This includes things like body language, social interactions, interests, and how they process information from their senses.

Autism can affect anyone, no matter their culture, ethnicity, race, or gender identity.

Some people classify autism as a disorder, and indeed it is classified as such in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is also referenced by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

However, today, many autistic individuals prefer to use the terms “neurological difference” or “condition” instead of “disorder”. This is because being autistic means that your brain processes information differently than someone who is not autistic, which is also known as being “neurotypical”.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism is called a “spectrum” disorder because it affects people in different ways and to varying degrees. Some individuals may have mild symptoms, while others may have more severe symptoms.

The term “spectrum” refers to the wide range of severity and developmental impairment that can occur in individuals with ASD. Although people with ASD share certain characteristics, the condition varies widely, including in the number and type of symptoms, severity (ranging from mild to severe), age of onset, levels of functioning, and social interaction challenges.

ASD often occurs alongside other medical conditions such as epilepsy, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal issues, and immune system irregularities. People with ASD are also prone to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, which can significantly affect their quality of life.

As a result, treatment must be tailored to the individual’s specific needs, and it’s important to remember that people with ASD have diverse needs, skills, and abilities. There is no one “typical” person with an ASD.

Autism in Canada: An overview

The National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System (NASS) released the latest Canadian prevalence rate in March 2018.

According to the report:

1 in 66 Canadian children and youth between the ages of 5 and 17 have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).1

The Canadian Medical Association Journal also indicates that approximately 1-2% of the Canadian population is on the autism spectrum, which means there are about 135,000 autistic individuals in Ontario.2

Can Autism be detected early by caregivers?

As a parent or grandparent, you may be the first to notice if your child is on the autism spectrum. If you have any concerns, it is important to talk to your family doctor, pediatrician or nurse practitioner.

Some health care professionals may advise a “wait and see” approach or suggest that your child will “catch up”. However, if your child has been developing normally and then starts losing skills or regressing, it is important to seek help immediately.

Screening your child early can lead to an earlier diagnosis by a specialized medical team of professionals, which means they can receive necessary treatment sooner.

Exceptional characteristics of individuals with ASD

Individuals with ASD often exhibit unique strengths and abilities in addition to the challenges they face. These exceptional characteristics can be valuable assets and should be recognized and nurtured.

In this section, we will discuss some of the exceptional characteristics that individuals with ASD may exhibit.

These include:

  1. Non-verbal reasoning: The ability to understand and analyze visual information and solve problems using visual reasoning.
  2. Exceptional memory: Some individuals with ASD may have excellent memory skills, which can include remembering specific details or facts.
  3. Perceptual motor skills: These skills refer to a person’s ability to coordinate their hand-eye or body-eye movements, as well as their auditory language skills.
  4. Computer proficiency: Many individuals with ASD have an aptitude for technology and computer-related tasks.
  5. Exceptional skills in creative and imaginative expression: Some individuals with ASD have exceptional skills in creative fields such as music, art, writing, or drama.
  6. Visuospatial ability: This refers to a person’s capacity to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects, which can be an exceptional skill in individuals with ASD.

In addition to these, autistic individuals may demonstrate some common, subtle characteristics in other areas of development.

It is important to note that each individual with ASD is unique and may present with a wide range of characteristics and abilities.

However, it has been seen that all children and adults diagnosed as autistic or on the ASD spectrum demonstrate some of the characteristics outlined below.

Signs of autism in infants and toddlers

Early signs of autism may present in infants and toddlers, and being aware of these signs can help parents seek early intervention for their child. Here are some common signs of autism in infants and toddlers:

  1. Lack of eye contact: Infants and toddlers with autism may have difficulty maintaining eye contact or may avoid making eye contact altogether.
  2. Delayed or absent speech: Children with autism may have delayed or absent speech development, and may not respond to their name or other sounds.
  3. Repetitive behaviors: Repetitive behaviors, such as hand flapping, rocking, or spinning, may be early signs of autism in infants and toddlers.
  4. Limited social interaction: Infants and toddlers with autism may have limited social interaction, such as not responding to social cues, not smiling, or not showing interest in social games.
  5. Difficulty with transitions: Children with autism may have difficulty with transitions, such as changes in routine or switching between activities.
  6. Lack of gestures: Infants and toddlers with autism may have difficulty with gestures, such as waving goodbye or pointing to objects.

It’s important to note that not all infants or toddlers who exhibit these signs may have autism, but if you notice several of these signs consistently, it’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional for further evaluation.

Signs of autism in preschool and school-aged children

As children with autism grow older, other signs may become apparent. Here are some common signs of autism in preschool and school-aged children:

  1. Difficulty with social interaction: Children with autism may struggle with social interactions, such as understanding social cues, maintaining friendships, or engaging in age-appropriate play.
  2. Communication challenges: Children with autism may have difficulty with communication, such as delayed speech, difficulty understanding or using language, or using language in a repetitive or unusual way.
  3. Restricted interests and repetitive behaviors: Children with autism may have restricted interests and engage in repetitive behaviors, such as obsessively focusing on one topic or activity.
  4. Sensory sensitivities: Children with autism may have sensory sensitivities, such as being overly sensitive to lights, sounds, textures, or smells.
  5. Difficulty with transitions and changes: Children with autism may struggle with transitions and changes in routine, and may become anxious or upset with unexpected changes.
  6. Challenging behaviors: Some children with autism may exhibit challenging behaviors, such as tantrums, aggression, or self-stimulatory behaviors, as a way to cope with sensory overload or difficulties with communication and social interaction.

Additional characteristics of autistic or ASD individuals

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may experience some additional symptoms or challenges. While not everyone with ASD will experience all of these symptoms, they are common and can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life.

Understanding these additional symptoms can help parents, caregivers, and educators provide better support and treatment for individuals with ASD.

Such additional symptoms include:

  • Impairment in social relationships: Difficulty in forming and maintaining social relationships with others.
  • Insufficient communication and use of language: Challenges in using and comprehending language, ranging from lack of speech to repetitive use of language.
  • Perseverating on interests and activities: Strong attachment and repetitive behaviors related to specific interests or activities.
  • Dependence on routine: Resistance to change in routine and an insistence on sameness and familiarity.
  • Unconventional reaction to sensory stimulation: Atypical or extreme reactions to sensory stimuli, including sensitivity to sound, light, or touch.
  • Behavioral problems: Behavioral issues such as aggression, self-injury, and hyperactivity.
  • Variability of intellectual functioning: Individuals with ASD can exhibit quite a wide range of intellectual abilities, from those who are so severely impacted that they cannot perform simple daily tasks, to others who show a high level of intelligence, are able to complete school and even college, and go on to have successful careers and families of their own.
  • Uneven development profile: Inconsistent development across different domains, such as cognitive, social, and emotional development.
  • Difficulties with sleeping, toileting, and eating: Difficulty with sleep, toilet training, and eating patterns.
  • Immune irregularities: Higher rates of immune system disorders among individuals with ASD.
  • Gastrointestinal (gut) problems: Digestive issues and gastrointestinal problems are also common symptoms that diagnosticians have noticed being experienced by many individuals with ASD.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Autism and ASD

Q: What should I do if I suspect my child may have autism?

If you suspect that your child may have autism or if you notice any of the early signs mentioned above, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation. Early intervention is crucial for children with autism, and getting a diagnosis and appropriate support as early as possible can greatly impact their developmental outcomes.

Q: How is autism diagnosed?

Autism is typically diagnosed by a team of professionals, including pediatricians, developmental pediatricians, psychologists, and speech-language pathologists, who conduct a comprehensive evaluation of a child’s developmental, communication, social, and behavioral skills. The evaluation may include observation, developmental assessments, and standardized tests. It’s important to seek a formal evaluation from qualified professionals for an accurate diagnosis.

Q: What are the treatment options for children with autism?

There is no cure for autism, but early intervention and appropriate support can greatly help children with autism. Treatment options may include behavioral therapies, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, social skills training, and educational support. The treatment plan is individualized based on the child’s unique needs and may involve a multidisciplinary approach involving various healthcare professionals.

Q: How can I support my child with autism at home?

As a parent, you play a crucial role in supporting your child with autism at home. Here are some tips:

  • Create a structured and predictable routine: Children with autism thrive on routine and predictability. Establishing a consistent daily routine can help your child feel more secure and reduce anxiety.
  • Provide clear and simple communication: Use clear and simple language when communicating with your child. Avoid using abstract or figurative language, and use visual supports, such as visual schedules or social stories, to help with comprehension.
  • Foster social skills: Encourage social interactions and playtime with peers. Practice turn-taking, sharing, and other social skills through play and structured activities.
  • Support sensory needs: Pay attention to your child’s sensory sensitivities and provide accommodations as needed, such as adjusting lights, reducing noise, or providing sensory breaks.
  • Seek professional help: Work closely with your child’s healthcare team, including therapists and educators, to develop and implement a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your child’s unique needs.

Conclusion

As a parent, being aware of the early signs of autism and seeking early intervention for your child is crucial for their developmental outcomes. Autism is a complex disorder, and early detection and appropriate support can greatly impact a child’s communication, social interaction, and behavior.

If you have concerns about your child’s development, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation. Remember, you are not alone, and there are resources and support available to help you navigate the journey of parenting a child with autism.

References:

  1. National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System, Autism Spectrum Disorder among Children and Youth in Canada 2018.
  2. Canadian Medical Association Journal,Autism spectrum disorder: advances in evidence-based practice.