1234.jpegWhether an organization calls it National Autism Awareness Month, Autism Acceptance Month, or World Autism Month, April is dedicated to raising awareness and promoting understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Capital Area Pediatrics is committed to educating parents and caregivers about autism and providing these families with the tools and resources they need to help their children thrive. Our team of pediatric experts is well-versed in identifying early signs of autism and collaborating with families to ensure early intervention and support.

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If you have concerns about your child’s development or suspect they may show signs of autism,schedule an appointment with us. Early detection and intervention can make a significant difference in a child’s development, and for their families, it can provide much-needed support and guidance.

Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder

As noted by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), a nonprofit organization run by and for autistic people, autism is a developmental disability that affects how a person experiences the world around them. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that it can present differently in each individual, with no two people experiencing it exactly the same way.

Some autistic people may repeat the same words or phrases over and over again (known as echolalia), while others may rely on technology or alternative forms of communication to express themselves. Some may struggle to understand the feelings of others around them, while others may be particularly sensitive to other people's feelings. Some may have difficulty with sensory processing, while others may have difficulty with changes in routine.

Recognizing the wide range of experiences that come with autism underscores the fact that diagnosing autism can be complex. It often takes time to accurately diagnose the disorder, but making an effort to understand the early signs and symptoms can help families get appropriate support as early as possible.

The Importance of Early Diagnosis

Early detection of autism spectrum disorders plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of interventions. Diagnosing ASD at an early age allows families to start treatment during a child's formative years, which is critical for improving outcomes across various areas of development.

Alongside regular monitoring of developmental milestones, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children be screened for ASD at ages 18 and 24 months. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides a developmental milestone checklist to help parents track their child's development and identify any potential concerns.

Early treatment and support can significantly improve a child's language skills, social skills, and behavior regulation. These early interventions are tailored to meet the unique needs of each child, offering a personalized approach that can adapt as the child grows. By starting therapies at an early age, children with autism can develop essential skills that will help them navigate the challenges of daily life more successfully and can foster a greater level of independence in the future.

In addition to giving autistic children the support they need to thrive, early intervention also provides invaluable support and resources for families, helping parents learn techniques to support their child's development and understand how to navigate challenges that may arise along the way.

Early Signs of Autism in Infants & Toddlers

The AAP and  CDC both provide resources to help parents recognize potential early signs of autism during early childhood. Some key indicators include:

By 9 Months of Age

During the first nine months of life, a baby is busy learning how to interact with others, respond to stimuli, and make sense of the world around them. However, ASD can lead to delayed communication skills, meaning that some children may:

  • Avoid making eye contact
  • Not respond to their name
  • Not form facial expressions

By 12 Months of Age

By the time a child reaches their first birthday, they typically have begun to form words and gestures. However, autistic children may struggle with communication and:

  • Use few or no gestures, like waving hello or goodbye
  • Not play simple interactive games (think 'pat-a-cake')
  • 'Ignore' or not look at where their parent is pointing

By 15 Months of Age

As toddlers continue to develop spoken language and social skills, most will point to objects they want in an effort to get their parent's attention.

If your child doesn't engage in this kind of behavior, or if they lead you to an object without pointing or making eye contact, this could be a sign of ASD.

By 18 Months of Age

Similarly, children at this age typically point to things they're interested in to get their parents to share in their excitement. They may even look back and forth between the object and their parent to make sure their parent is paying attention to what they're pointing at.

If your child doesn't initiate this type of interaction, it's worth discussing with your pediatrician.

By 24 Months of Age

By the time a child reaches the age of two, most are able to identify when others are hurt or upset and respond in some way. An autistic two-year-old, however, may not show empathy or understanding of others' feelings.

Additionally,according to the AAP, 25% of children later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder may develop some language that they then gradually or suddenly stop using. This typically occurs between the ages of 15 to 24 months.

By 36 Months of Age

By the time they turn three years old, most children will independently notice other children and be interested in playing with them. However, if your child struggles to engage in social communication, play with, or show interest in their peers, it may be a sign of ASD.

Recognizing Autism in Young Children

After a child's third birthday, the signs of autism may become more apparent. With a better understanding of their child's behaviors and social interactions, parents may be able to identify early indicators that they previously missed.

While every autistic child is unique and will experience the disorder differently, there are a range of verbal and behavioral indicators and delays that may suggest ASD in young children.

Verbal Indicators

Autistic children may exhibit a range of speech and language impairments. Some children may not speak at all, while others may have delayed language development or difficulty with verbal communication. This can manifest in various ways, such as:

  • Repeating the same words or phrases over and over (echolalia)
  • Difficulty understanding figurative language, like idioms or metaphors
  • Difficulty understanding nonverbal cues like facial expressions or tone of voice

Behavioral Indicators

In addition to speech and language issues, autistic children may exhibit a range of restricted or repetitive behaviors. Some of these include:

  • Becoming extremely fixated on or 'obsessed' with particular objects or topics
  • Struggling with changes in routine or transitioning between activities
  • Lining up or otherwise sorting toys instead of engaging in pretend play
  • Playing with the same toys in the same way every time, as if following a script
  • 'Stimming,' like flapping hands, rocking back and forth, or spinning in circles
  • Unusual or strong reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

Other Indicators

In addition to delayed language, movement, or learning skills, other issues may become more apparent as children with autism age. These could include:

  • Struggling with hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behavior
  • Unusual eating and sleeping habits
  • Experiencing an excessive amount of anxiety, stress, fear, or worry
  • Conversely, lacking fear or a sense of danger in situations where most children would feel afraid
  • Showing difficulty with motor skills, like balancing, running, or jumping

Differentiating between early warning signs of autism and typical developmental variations can be challenging. Every child develops at their own pace, and what might be a sign of autism in one child could simply be a unique quirk in another.

It's important to look for patterns rather than single instances of behavior. For example, occasional or circumstantial avoidance of eye contact is entirely normal; if a child is in trouble or embarrassed, they might look at the ground or off to the side to avoid looking at their parent's face. However, if you notice that your child consistently avoids eye contact in all situations, this could be a sign of ASD.

Additionally, consider the context: a child might not interact much with others in unfamiliar settings but may be very sociable at home. If you observe behaviors that concern you, take note of their frequency, intensity, and the variety of contexts in which they occur. For a professional opinion, contact your child's CAP pediatrician, who can provide guidance based on a holistic view of your child’s development.

How Autism Presents Differently in Girls

Lastly, it's worth noting that autism often presents differently in girls than in boys. Girls tend to be diagnosed at a much later age, and many go undiagnosed entirely. This is due to several factors, including gender bias in diagnostic criteria and the fact that these 'early warning signs' may manifest differently (and more subtly) in girls.

For example, while some boys with autism may struggle with hyperactive or aggressive behavior, girls may exhibit more internalizing behaviors, like anxiety and depression. Additionally, social communication issues may present differently in girls, as they tend to have better 'surface-level' social skills and are more likely to 'camouflage' or 'mask' their autistic traits in order to fit in with their peers.

This is not to say that all girls with ASD will present this way; every child is unique, and autism is a spectrum disorder. However, it's important for parents and caregivers to be aware of these differences to better recognize and support autistic girls.

How Capital Area Pediatrics Can Help

If you have concerns about your child's development, don't hesitate to contact your Capital Area Pediatrics pediatrician. As part of our normal well-child visits from birth until the age of three,we routinely screen for developmental disorders like ASD. This proactive approach ensures that any potential issues are identified and addressed as early as possible.

In addition to screenings, our pediatricians are experienced in recognizing the signs of ASD and can provide referrals for further evaluation and treatment if necessary. Furthermore, we are dedicated to providing ongoing support through follow-up visits, promoting an environment of care and understanding throughout your child’s development.

Our team at Capital Area Pediatrics is committed to providing comprehensive care for children with autism and other developmental disorders. We understand the importance of early intervention and strive to provide support, resources, and guidance to families throughout this journey. If you have

If you have any concerns or questions about your child's development, or you're interested in having your child screened, schedule an appointment with Capital Area Pediatrics. We're here to help every step of the way.

From well-child visits to specialty care, the team at Capital Area Pediatrics is here to help your family stay healthy. Request an appointment online, or find a location near you today.

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