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What is Autism?

Autism is a developmental disability that begins in early childhood. It is most often associated with deficits in the areas of social skills, communication, interpersonal skills, sensory processing, and physical development. Every child presents autism differently. Their behaviors can span these areas of development and present mildly or severely.

Genes play a key role in the development of autism. Environmental and biological factors contribute as well. Understanding how genes, biology, and environmental conditions more specifically contribute to developing autism is still being researched.

Approximately, 1 in 54 children are shown to have autism. Autism is seen 4 times more often in boys than in girls. Symptoms can be detected as early as 18 months of age.

Causes

The scientific community has not yet discovered a single cause for autism. Research suggests that a combination of many factors, both genetic and environmental, increase the risk that a child will develop autism.

There is extensive support that genes are one of the main causes of autism. More than 100 genes across different chromosomes have been identified as causing ASD to varying degrees. The influence of genes on autism is complex, and combinations of different genetic mutations can influence how symptoms and severity. As evidence of the influence of genetics on autism, research has found that autism runs in families, with increased risk for the disorder among siblings or children of individuals with ASD.

Additional risk factors include parental age at the child’s birth (35+ years), premature birth, and various genetic conditions (e.g., Rett syndrome, Fragile X). It is important to remember that risk factors do not imply causation, but rather the increase in probability of having a child with autism. There is no established link between autism and childhood vaccines.

Common Signs of Autism

SymptomExample(s)
Loss of previously acquired verbal skillsBegins to talk at 13 months and then loses language around 2 years old
Unusual response to sensory inputScreams and covers ears when the toilet flushes, a baby cries, kids are playing, etc.
Failure to make eye contactAvoids looking at parent during direct play interactions such as peek-a-boo
Little interest in other children or caretakersPrefers to play alone away from others
Lack of body language and gesturesDoes not point to things he/she wants, does not wave hi and bye
Difficulty with changes in routine & transitionsTemper tantrum when school has a day off
Obsessive interest in a particular topicOnly wants to watch, play with, and talk about trains
Loss of previously acquired social skillsWas approaching mom to play peek-a-boo at 1 years old and now will not approach mom for play at all

When Are Symptoms Noticed?

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Autism is most commonly diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, even though development differences can show earlier. Symptoms of autism do not develop all at once. Instead, specific symptoms begin to be noticed by parents at different times as a child progresses through developmental stages.

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Many children with ASD display developmental differences as early as infancy. At this age, the differences are primarily in the areas of social and language skills. They tend to be subtler symptoms that are difficult to detect by parents at this age. Some examples could be differences in communication changes, early language skills, and interaction with others. These types of differences are generally easier to notice as a child ages out of infancy. During infancy, other skills, like motor skills, may appear to develop on time, which can make the detection of autism of even more difficult.

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There are autism tests that can be administered by licensed clinicians as early as 18 months. However, It is more common that testing happens later once a child ages and symptoms become more obvious to parents. Early testing has the benefit of early treatment with stronger, long-term clinical results.

 

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Autism Symptoms by Areas of Development

  • Lack of joint attention at every stage (looking at an object that a parent is pointing at by 10-12 months, pointing to an object they want by 12-14 months, and pointing to objects they find interesting by 14-16 months)
  • Lack of eye contact
  • Does not respond to name by 12 months of age
  • Does not respond to a parent’s smile or facial expressions
  • Prefers to play alone
  • Does not exhibit appropriate facial expressions
  • Does not share interests with others
  • Is not comforted by others when distressed
  • Avoids physical contact
  • Lack of cooing or babbling by 12 months
  • Does not point or respond to pointing
  • Does not say single words by 16 months
  • Does not respond to their name but responds to other sounds
  • Uses few or no gestures (waving hi & bye)
  • Repeats what others say
  • Repeats words/phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Does not exhibit a desire to communicate with others
  • May lose language usually between 15-24 months of age
  • Obsessive and repetitive patterns of behavior
  • Self-stimulatory behaviors (flapping hands, rocking back and forth, spinning in circles)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Difficulty with changes in routine and transitions
  • Fixations with certain objects or activities
  • Plays with parts of toys rather than the whole toy
  • Impulsivity (acting without thinking)
  • Aggression & self-injury
  • Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to smells, sounds, lights, textures, and touch
  • Doesn’t seem to feel pain
  • Fussy eating habits
  • Seeks additional sensory input (e.g. hand-flapping, rocking, bouncing)
  • Unusual cravings for, or preoccupations with, certain sensory inputs (e.g. putting non-food items in mouth)

What Do I Do if I Think My Child Has Autism?

If you notice a number of red flags in your child’s development, it is important to bring them up to your pediatrician. The sooner ASD is identified, the sooner an intervention program can begin. Research shows that starting therapy as soon as possible can significantly improve outcomes for children with ASD. If you have already decided that you would like to schedule a Diagnostic Evaluation for your child, you can learn more below.

 

The screening below is designed to identify signs of autism in children aged 16 to 30 months. Please note that this is only meant to function as a quick screener, not a formal assessment or diagnosis. Formal testing is needed to diagnose autism.

Screener results will be either Low, Medium, or High Risk. When you receive the score, included will be recommendations for next steps.

The screener can help parents identify next steps and interventions at an early age. Early support through ABA Therapy is one of the most effective ways to improve long-term outcomes in young children with autism.