With up to one in 68 children now being diagnosed with autism, a public debate rages: Is the actual incidence of autism rising at what some say are epidemic proportions, or is our high awareness of this once rare childhood neurological condition leading to more vigilance and better diagnosis? While the larger debate is likely to continue for some time, plenty of proof suggests that more awareness is at least part of the reason we see so many kids diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder now compared to a generation ago.
Recognizing more children with autism means more opportunity for intervention and a greater chance of a better future for these children. In fact, while typically considered a lifelong challenge, the possibility exists that some children improve not only emotional, behavioral and learning skills, but might even outgrow autism itself. Yet studies also tell us that the best chance for optimum results is to catch it early and initiate a comprehensive, targeted intervention specific to their needs.
Decades of research encompassing hundreds of studies validate a particular type of intervention called applied behavior therapy (ABA) for autism. Behavioral intervention, supported by speech language therapy, produces significant and meaningful improvements regarding social, play and communication abilities. This includes documented cases in which children reach the "optimal outcome" of no longer meeting criteria for autism.
Most importantly, a study recently published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that 83 percent of autistic children who reached optimal outcome started therapy prior to age 3. The rest obtained intervention by the start of kindergarten. Children diagnosed even with high-functioning autism (suggesting milder impairments) who missed out on services in early childhood did not reach an optimal outcome as often as more impaired peers. Yet in the real world, children with high functioning autism often receive minimal services instead of ongoing, autism-specific supports.
Watching and waiting is not the way to go, since early diagnosis and early intervention matter profoundly. Children with developmental delays are at much greater risk than infants and toddlers who meet all their milestones. And thankfully, since developmental interventions are educational they have little downside when done appropriately.
It's understandable that a parent may hesitate and want to give children time to mature, and a huge range does exist for typical development. Yet as scary as it may seem, it is better to get an evaluation done and, if necessary, to start services. If your child displays any of these possible symptoms, contact your pediatrician and seek evaluation by a developmental specialist:
• Language delays, such as no babbling as an infant or no words spoken by age 15 - 16 months. While most children with language delays turn out only to have language delays, an evaluation rules out other causes.
• Lack of gesturing to communicate or finger pointing by age 1.
• Lack of back-and-forth interaction. This includes experiences such as a child who does not respond to his name by age one, or lack of interest in (and initiation of) back and forth play as an infant (such as peek-a-boo).
• Lack of imaginative play as a toddler or in an older child.
• Loss of developmental skills at any time.