What to Expect When You're Suspecting... ASD
Since it is the start of a new year, I wanted to engage parents who might be newly receiving the diagnosis of autism for their child. In this “New Year, New Diagnosis” series, I want to give parents resources and information to help make the start of their journey successful, supported and stress-free. Whether you are a parent who is just learning about autism and all of the treatments available, or a seasoned veteran who has been raising a child with autism for many years; this series aims to give you the latest research and strategies in a unique and engaging way!
What is Autism?
“Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development.” - Autism Speaks
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability, meaning that the signs of autism we can observe come from underdevelopment or atypical development of the brain. With the latest edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is an umbrella term for several different neurodevelopmental disabilities. If your child was previously diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder or Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), their diagnosis now falls under the ASD umbrella.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disoders (DSM-V) provides the main criteria for diagnosing autism. In the current edition of the DSM, a child must present deficits in social communication and social interaction as well as display restricted and repetitive interests, behaviors, or activities in order to be diagnosed with autism. This can look very different from child to child and the new DSM uses a scale of severity within the diagnosis - representing the "spectrum".
What is the Autism Spectrum?
"The spectrum is like a tree with a variety of branches and leaves. Every leaf of autism is different and diverse."- Alyssa Wilkins
I like to think of the spectrum as less of a linear, mild to severe diagnostic tool and more like a tree with a variety of branches and leaves. Some children may be on one branch of the spectrum and be non-verbal, but have mild motor deficits and above-average intelligence. Another child may be on another branch of the spectrum and have high sensory needs, but can communicate verbally while needing addition support for cognitive and academic skills. Each child is a leaf on a branch of the spectrum, and every leaf of autism is different and diverse.
What causes Autism?
Because each case of autism is so diverse, there is no one known cause of autism. There is a lot of fantastic research happening that investigates specific genes and proteins that may play a role in the development of autism. Unfortunately, many of these genes account for a minimal percent of autism cases around the world. One theory that has become increasingly popular in the autism community is the triple hit theory. This theory examines environmental factors, genetics and the timing of exposure to an environmental toxin in the possible development of autism.
Early Signs of Autism
"A flood of new research is advancing our understanding of autism and highlighting the need for earlier interventions" - American Psychological Association
Most children receive a diagnosis of ASD around 2 or 3 years of age, but there are warning signs that can point to autism as early as 6 months. I like to call these signs “yellow flags.” Just because your child, or a friend’s child, exhibits one of these behaviors does not mean they definitively have autism, but they are good to look out for throughout the course of development.
Lack of emotional reciprocity
Emotional reciprocity begins around 6 months of age and can be observed when you hear a baby crying at the sound of another baby crying. If you have ever been in a room with more than one baby, when one cries – they all cry. This is a precursor for future emotional development, which can be affected or impaired in children with ASD.
Joint attention can be seen as early as 9 – 18 months. Joint attention happens when two people focus their attention on the same object then shift their attention back to each other. Joint attention leads to future attention skills as well as social and cognitive skills.
Vocalizing and babbling
Children often speak their first words around 12 months, but vocalizing and babbling can be seen even earlier in development. Children begin to use vocal play around 4 – 6 months and begin to babble between 6 – 11 months.
This is a common warning sign of autism. Eye contact is not just important for emotional bonding and social development, it is also critical in cognitive development. Lack of eye contact can translate to difficulty with visual tracking which leads to many cognitive and even motor/physical skills.
Early identification of these signs is crucial. Earlier understanding can lead to the opportunity for parents and practicioners to implement interventions and strategies to aid in future development for a child on the spectrum.
I See Some of These Signs, I Suspect, Now What?
Many parents who are reading this may already have the suspicion that their child is on the spectrum, but don’t know the next steps in getting their child what they need to succeed. Here are some steps I suggest to make this process as simple and beneficial as possible for both you and your child.
Receiving a diagnosis. You can ask your pediatrician to recommend a diagnostician, neuropsychologist, or autism specialist in the area. You can also search those key terms through your insurance company or online to see what locations are closest to you for diagnosis.
Contact your insurance company to let them know of your child’s recent diagnosis and determine what services they cover. Without a diagnosis, your insurance company will not cover any services in which you choose to enroll your child.
Reach out to local parent groups to find out the activities in your area as well as therapists, doctors, etc. that are most recommended. Having partners in this journey will make the whole process a lot easier. Having a team of people who have been there before is even better!
Find therapies that will benefit your child the most and meet their current functioning level. Common ASD therapies include ABA, OT, Speech, and Music Therapy.
My Child Has Autism, What Does that Really Mean?
"It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a child with autism to raise the consciousness of the village” - Coach Elaine Hall
You followed the steps above, received the diagnosis, and have begun contacting professionals to give your child the best opportunities possible. What does it all mean? Autism means you will have very challenging moments, just like any parent. Autism means people might stare and misunderstand and make assumptions. Autism means your child may need to do and learn things differently than expected in order to achieve a specific skill.
Autism also means you will learn to communicate and love in a new way that you never thought possible. You will grow as a parent, as an individual, and you will be able to teach the world about neurodiversity. Autism means you are part of a unique, strong and smart community of people who want to make your child’s life, and yours, the best it can be!
Being a passionate autism provider is the best role I have ever taken on in my life, and I am so lucky to share my knowledge and experience with all of you. Throughout this series, I would love your feedback and for you to share your experiences of having a child with autism. Parents, friends and caregivers are the glue of this community and I am honored to be able to contribute to the wonderful world of autism!
Stay tuned for next week’s blog that focuses on getting the best bang for your buck when it comes to choosing services for your child!