The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates one in 68 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. Nate Noble, DO, developmental-behavioral pediatrician at UnityPoint Health, discusses what an autism diagnosis means, as well as how parents and caregivers can support children with an autism spectrum disorder.
While the CDC states a child can be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder as early as 18 months old, Dr. Noble says most diagnoses come in a child’s toddler years.
“Typically, autism diagnoses aren’t made until age 3, but we also see kids younger,” Dr. Noble says. “It’s not uncommon to diagnose a child with autism at 24 or 30 months of age.”
Dr. Noble also says genetic change can account for a large percentage of autism diagnoses. Less than 10 percent of autism cases are considered to be caused by environmental factors.
Symptoms of autism aren’t the same in every child, but Dr. Noble lists language regression, delayed response to name and lack of intent to communicate as signs to keep an eye on. But, because these are so broad, he reminds parents and caregivers that just because a child shows these behaviors doesn’t automatically mean he/she has an autism spectrum disorder.
“Autism, social-communication disorders and language disorders can all look similar. One main difference is a child with autism tends to not try very hard to communicate. Children with social-communication disorder and specific language disorders usually try to communicate to the best of their ability,” Dr. Noble says.
Additionally, Dr. Noble cautions parents and caregivers against relying on online autism screening tools to provide a diagnosis.
“Remember screening tools are meant to screen. They are not diagnostic, only meant to alert the team the more evaluation is needed. If you do complete an online screening and it says positive, don’t jump to conclusions. Follow up with your child’s UnityPoint Health primary care provider or the local Area Education Agency (AEA) for next steps,” Dr. Noble says.
There are many treatments available for individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, but Dr. Noble says strong care plans should be developed specifically for each child with the best quality of life in mind.
“Children with autism are not all the same, it’s a spectrum. Because of this, the care we provide should also be a spectrum, tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of the individual,” Dr. Noble says.
In general, after an autism diagnosis, families can expect providers to help identify school-based support and private therapy options, like speech therapy, as well as Medicaid access, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and possibly genetic testing. Providers will also determine if medication is necessary.
Dr. Noble says parental and caregiver support is huge. Here are his tips for supporting a child with autism at school and at home:
- At school. Work with your local AEA team to devise the best treatment plan for your child. Emphasis on functional communication and transitions are typically top priorities.
- At home. Enjoy your child. Don’t over “therapize” them. While working on functional communication and transitions are important, so is family time.
In addition, Dr. Noble warns families against autism rumors. If you have any questions about autism or your child’s development, work with your child’s primary care provider.
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“Not everything is autism, and the biggest myth I encounter is the over diagnosis of it. Also, autism isn’t associated with immunizations and vaccines. But, most importantly, I want to absolutely stress that there’s nothing families could have done to prevent autism. It’s not their fault, and expensive, non-evidenced based interventions aren’t usually worth the investments.”