Autism is a condition that affects the development of children and is composed of deficits in verbal and nonverbal communication with marked repetitive behaviors. People with autism often struggle with social skills, understanding and interpreting facial and hand gestures, as well as verbal phrases leading to social isolation.
Autism can be detected as early as 18 months and usually diagnosed as early as 2 to 3 years of age. Parents play a significant role in identifying these more common signs:
▪ Difficulty babbling and/or lack of eye contact by 9 months.
▪ Difficulty pointing, using gestures, and responding to their name by 12 months.
▪ Difficulty speaking a single word by 16 months.
▪ Difficulty using two-word phrases that have meaning by 24 months. Regression or loss of previously acquired skills, like speech, gross motor skills, or social skills.
▪ Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings, resistance to minor changes in routines, having only a few, narrow interests, and consistently choosing to be play alone.
While studies show no difference along ethnic or cultural lines in the rate of autism occurrence, identification of autism among children of color lags significantly behind non-Hispanic white children. According to a study by the CDC, African-American and Hispanic children are less likely to be diagnosed with autism when meeting criteria than their non-Hispanic white counterparts are.
Hispanics are diagnosed with autism, on average, 2.5 years after their non-Hispanic white counterparts, according to a sample of Medicaid-eligible children. Because early identification of autism is dependent upon family observations and parental reports to health professionals, it is important to identify cultural factors that might delay diagnosis and treatment. Some proposed factors include lack of access to diagnostic specialists, cultural and language barriers and social stigma.
The need for early and rapid intervention is imperative to achieve the best outcomes. Significant improvements can be seen when children are paired early with appropriate behavioral, speech, occupational, or physical therapy. Otherwise, there may be lasting ramifications throughout one’s lifespan when treatment is delayed. Children are amazing learners and they have the capacity to overcome many obstacles when provided early treatment and support.
If you have any concerns about your child, speak with your pediatrician. Other sources of support include UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities and Early Steps.
Raúl Poulsen, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Matt Bewley, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow. Elizabeth Anne Deckler, B.A., is an M.D. candidate at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.