Saturday, April 2, 2011

Autism Awareness Month: Recognize the Signs

April has been designated national Autism Awareness Month and provides a special opportunity for individuals across our country to educate and raise awareness in their neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and local communities. Recent studies indicate that rates for both autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and autistic disorder are 3 to 4 times higher than 30 years ago. The pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) category, also commonly referred to as ASD, represents one of the fastest growing disability categories in the world. In the United States, ASD is more prevalent in the pediatric population than cancer, diabetes, spina bifida, and Down syndrome. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control now estimates that 1 in 110 8-year-old children have an autism spectrum disorder. In fact, prevalence and incidence figures suggest that over 1.5 million Americans are affected by autism.

Research indicates that the outcomes for children with ASD can be significantly improved by early identification and intensive intervention. It is critically important to identify those children who are at-risk in order to reduce the time between symptom appearance and formal diagnosis and treatment. An important goal of Autism Awareness is to alert new parents and others of the early behavioral signs of autism. The signs and symptoms typically appear during the first three years of life and relate to language, social behavior, and behaviors concerning objects and routines. "Red flags" or key warning signs of autism include:

Does not smile by the age of six months
• Does not respond to his name
• Does not cry
• Does not babble or use gestures by 12 months
• Does not point to objects by 12 months
• Does not use words by 16 months
• Does not use two-word phrases by 24 months
• Regresses after mastering skills/loses previously mastered skills
• Delays in milestones like crawling and walking.

Children with ASD (but not always) experience delays in speech and communication skills. Not only will they often develop spoken language later, but they are less likely to develop non-verbal communication skills such as pointing, joint attention, or gesturing. I always recommend that a standardized screening tool be administered at any point when concerns about ASD are raised by a parent or teacher or as a result of school observations or questions about developmentally appropriate social, communicative, play behaviors, or where there is a family history of autism or related disabilities. Because ASDs continue to grow at such a dramatic rate, it is an issue that deserves our attention not only in April, but throughout the year.

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