One of the most important things a parent or caregiver can do is to know at what age children learn new skills. Developmental milestones help you understand if your child’s behavior and development are on track. While each child matures differently, some delays or differences may be signs of autism or a related disorder.
Research shows that starting treatment for autism early in childhood makes a big difference in how a child does long term. Autism affects how a child’s brain develops. Early childhood is a time when our brains are most adaptable to change. If a child receives specialized treatment early in life, he or she is more likely to have positive outcomes in the areas of language and social skills. Behavioral therapies can also reduce anxiety and aggressive behavior in children with autism.
Identifying autism early is a special problem in South Florida. Hispanic and black children are less likely than others to be diagnosed with autism early in childhood, and therefore miss out on getting the best treatment. Language and cultural issues are sometimes barriers to care. Doctors may not understand parents’ concerns. Some parents blame themselves for their child’s autism or just don’t want to know for sure that there is a problem. Other parents may worry that people will treat their child or their family differently after a diagnosis of autism. All parents — and healthcare professionals — need to know that the earlier a child is diagnosed, the better the long-term outcomes.
Early signs of autism are often referred to as “red flags.” They include:
Never miss a local story.
▪ Not making eye contact.
▪ Not sharing smiles, sounds or facial expressions.
▪ Not babbling by 12 months of age.
▪ Not using gestures (e.g., pointing, waving, showing) by 12 months of age.
▪ Not using meaningful words by 16 months of age.
▪ Not responding to name by 18 months of age.
▪ Not using meaningful, two-word phrases by 24 months of age.
▪ Having many odd sensory interests or repetitive movement (e.g., lights, spinning objects).
▪ Losing ANY skills at any age (e.g., used to be able to talk but stopped).
If you think your child has any of these red flags, speak with your child’s doctor or contact Switchboard of Miami’s Help Me Grow by calling 211 or visiting SwitchboardMiami.org/help-me-grow. Help Me Grow has professionals trained to help families answer questions about child behavior and development.
To learn more how your child is developing, you can also go online to complete the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R), available at www.m-chat.org. Many physicians and early childhood educators use this tool. If your child is between the ages of 16 to 30 months, the M-CHAT-R can help you determine whether your child is at risk for autism. If it shows that your child is not developing like most other children, an evaluation by an autism specialist is necessary to determine whether the cause is autism or a related condition.
There is no medical test to diagnose autism. Instead, specially trained physicians and psychologists interview you and examine your child. An evaluation may involve a team, including a pediatrician, psychologist, speech and language pathologist, and occupational therapist. This type of comprehensive evaluation helps you to understand as much as possible about your child’s strengths and needs.
Once diagnosed, you will immediately be referred to special programs that address your child’s condition. The University of Miami Autism Programs brings together resources, including leading research and clinical services for its patients. The Interdisciplinary Evaluation Services (IDES) team at the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth — University of Miami Health System, for example, performs comprehensive evaluations and creates treatment plans for each child and family. The IDES team works closely with the University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), a comprehensive outreach and support program serving people with autism and related disabilities, their families and the professionals who work with them. The IDES team, CARD and other services help families get the kind of services their child needs.
Sometimes family members, teachers, caregivers or even professionals will tell you not to worry, saying your child will “grow out of it.” Do not let this stop you. When you are concerned about your child’s development, an evaluation by developmental specialists is necessary. You should speak to your child’s pediatrician, call Help Me Grow or contact the University of Miami Autism Programs at (305) 243-6831. Together we can begin early treatment to children with autism, helping them reach their optimal development.
Meredith Brinster, M.A., is a pediatric psychology resident at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Jeffrey Brosco, M.D., Ph.D., professor of clinical pediatrics, is the Associate Director of the Mailman Center for Child Development at UHealth - University of Miami Miller Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.