How your child plays, speaks, behaves and meets other developmental “milestones” by certain ages can offer important insight into their development. No two children develop at exactly the same rate — not even twins — but some children who don’t meet developmental milestones may have autism.
Commonly referred to as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), autism refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.
Autism spectrum disorder is an umbrella term that comprises various subtypes of autism. According to Dr. Craig, symptoms of autism spectrum disorders fall into two domains: social and behavioral.
Kids who exhibit social domain symptoms may find it difficult to socialize or communicate with other people or empathize with how others feel. Examples of behavior domain symptoms include engaging in repetitive behaviors or having trouble adapting to changes in routines.
Symptoms of autism typically begin to emerge around age three, although they may appear even before the child’s first birthday.
“Symptoms may change somewhat as the child becomes older and learns more about how to socialize with others, but autism is a lifelong condition,” says Dr. Craig. “But over time, especially with the therapies we have, there are many different ways to treat the symptoms of autism and to help kids function really well.”
If you believe your child may have autism, talk with your pediatrician. They will check for developmental milestones at your well-child visits, but if you are concerned about symptoms, let them know. If appropriate, your pediatrician will refer you to a specialist for an evaluation and treatment plan.
One of the more common treatments is applied behavioral analysis therapy, where a therapist works with the child to help them learn to modify their behaviors. Speech therapy can help kids affected by autism learn verbal communication skills as well as ways to communicate non-verbally, such as through sign language or a communication device.
Rarely, some kids with autism may need medication to help manage certain symptoms that may cause problems, such as impulsive behavior.
Dr. Craig believes that raising awareness about autism can benefit both kids and families affected by the condition. Autism is often misunderstood and this can lead to social, academic and professional challenges.
“It can be very difficult either at school, with kids being teased or bullied, or in the workplace, when people don’t understand autism or its symptoms. There can be shunning as well, which is really unfortunate,” she says. “It’s important to think about how we can help somebody with autism interact or get through some of the symptoms they’re having.”
For example, a child with autism may be very sensitive to noise. They may withdraw and cover their ears on the playground, unable to communicate that they need help. When someone recognizes and understands that behavior, they may take action to move the child to a quieter environment.
If you have a child with autism, helping others understand the disorder can benefit everyone.
Share the diagnosis with your family and friends, educate them about autism and tell other people what’s going to be most helpful for your child in certain situations.
Be proactive with your child’s school and explore potential special education plans to create a learning environment that is conducive to your child’s needs. There also are many online social or support groups for families of kids with autism.
“Autism is a very treatable disorder, especially if caught early on,” says Dr. Craig. “The earlier we intervene, the easier it is for kids to learn certain social skills to get through preschool and early elementary school years. They can have much better outcomes.”