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Could It Be Autism? Identifying Symptoms

Could It Be Autism? Identifying Symptoms

When your child displays a behavior that deviates from what is considered “neurotypical,” you may be at a loss for what to do. As a parent, it’s difficult to know what behaviors may be a passing phase of childhood, and what behaviors may signal a formal neurodevelopmental condition, such as autism. Often, being aware of what to look out for, and when to seek help, can go a long way in giving you peace of mind.

At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we believe that information is power. In honor of April’s status as World Autism Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about autism, including symptoms that may help in making this important diagnosis.

What is autism?

Autism, formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is not a specific trait but rather a set of characteristics that can vary widely from one person to another. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) defines it as a “neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.” Differences in the brain cause the condition. Autism is a lifelong condition; anyone can be diagnosed with autism at any age. However, it is often diagnosed in childhood because the symptoms of autism typically appear within the first two years of life.

Who is most likely to get autism?

Autism occurs in all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It occurs in both genders; however, it is four times more common in boys. According to recent statistics, autism currently affects 1 in 36 children in the US, among a sampling of 8-year-olds.

What are the symptoms of autism?

Autism is considered to be a disorder that occurs along a spectrum because there are a wide variety of symptoms that can occur with this disorder. There is also a lot of variation in how significantly autism impacts a person’s life. Some people with mild autism can function at home and school and, eventually, at work, with mild impairment. However, some people with autism face more intense challenges with functioning daily and may need continuous help and support throughout their lifetime.

According to the NIH, the signs and symptoms of autism are grouped into two categories. The first category involves how people communicate socially and interact with others. Within this category, signs of autism could include:

  • Displaying little eye contact, or inconsistent eye contact with others
  • Not looking at people who are talking
  • Appearing not to listen to people who are talking
  • Not appearing to share interests, emotions, or enjoyment of activities with others (infrequent pointing to objects)
  • Being slow to respond to one’s own name, or not responding to one’s own name
  • Being slow to respond to verbal attempts to get one’s attention
  • Lack of conversational reciprocity (not being able to talk “back and forth” with others)
  • Talking about a favorite subject in a fixated manner (including talking at length without picking up on social cues that others are not interested, or without giving others a chance to participate in the dialogue)
  • Inability to match the topic of conversation to appropriate facial expressions, gestures, or movements
  • Using an atypical tone of voice that may sound flat, robotic or song-like
  • Showing difficulty with empathy, including having trouble understanding someone else’s perspective
  • Being unable to predict how others will react in certain situations
  • Showing resistance or challenges with adjusting behaviors to match certain social situations
  • Showing difficulties with engaging in imaginative play
  • Showing difficulties with making friends

The second category of signs of autism includes restrictive or repetitive behaviors. These behaviors may include:

  • Repeating movements, words, or phrases (this is known as “echolalia”)
  • Displaying an unusual amount of interest in certain topics, especially detail-heavy topics like numbers or facts
  • Displaying an unusual amount of interest in how an object moves, or in specific parts of an object (such as the wheels of a car)
  • Showing challenges with variations in routine
  • Showing difficulty with transitions, even those that are part of a daily routine
  • Showing increased sensitivity to sensory inputs like sounds, temperatures, parts of clothing (like tags), or lights
  • Showing decreased sensitivity to sensory inputs

These symptoms may contribute to difficulties with sleep and mood, including irritability. People with autism are also known to have many exceptional traits, including a vivid memory for details, and an increased capacity to learn certain topics, especially in the fields of math, science, music, and art.

How is autism diagnosed?

There is no specific blood test or other medical test that can immediately determine whether or not someone has autism. Instead, medical providers diagnose the condition based on how a patient behaves. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is sometimes possible to detect autism in a child by the age of 18 months or even younger. Autism can usually be reliably diagnosed by age 2; however, it sometimes takes more time for people to receive a final diagnosis. The longer it takes for autism to be diagnosed, the fewer support services and education patients and their families may receive. Intervening early in life can greatly impact a child’s learning and development.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, every child should be screened for autism to prevent delays in diagnosis. During well-child checks, questionnaires are typically used to screen for symptoms of autism that might be displayed at each age. For example, autism may be suspected in a child who does not respond to their own name or show facial expressions by 9 months old. A lack of interest in playing games like pat-a-cake or a lack of use of gestures (like waving goodbye) at one year of age may also be signs of the condition. Gestures such as flapping hands, rocking, or repeating the same motion with certain toys may also be apparent.

If a child’s caregiver responds to certain aspects of an autism screening questionnaire in the affirmative, additional evaluation will be required. This evaluation is usually conducted by a team of specialists who have experience in diagnosing autism. The types of professionals on this team may include speech-language pathologists, child neurologists, developmental pediatricians, child psychologists, and occupational therapists. According to the NIH, the team-based evaluation may include the following components:

  • A medical and neurologic exam
  • A cognitive assessment
  • A language assessment
  • A period of observation of a child’s behavior
  • A focused conversation with the child’s caregivers
  • An evaluation of the child’s skills, which are dependent on the child’s age (i.e. dressing or eating habits)

To fully make a diagnosis, and rule out other possible causes of symptoms, other tests may also be needed. These tests may include blood tests or hearing tests.

Do symptoms of autism co-occur with other conditions?

Many other conditions can share symptoms of autism. It is also possible for a person to have some symptoms of autism without having the disorder. According to the organization Autism Speaks, autism is “often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and attention issues.” This is why getting a child evaluated by a pediatrician or developmental specialist is so important.

What causes autism symptoms?

A large challenge for families of children who are diagnosed with autism is understanding the cause of the condition. Although researchers have devoted attention to the cause of autism, there is still a lot that is unknown about the condition, and why it occurs in some children and not in others. The condition is thought to be caused by a mix of genetic and environmental factors (such as pollution). Certain things will make a person more predisposed to having autism, such as having a sibling with the condition, being born to older parents, having a genetic condition like Down syndrome, or having a very low birth weight.

How to learn more about getting evaluated for autism

Children with autism have individual strengths and challenges that make them beautifully unique. However, before getting a diagnosis, symptoms of autism can disrupt the lives of children, as well as their caregivers. Making a diagnosis of autism is important for helping every child get the help and support services that they need to enjoy a high quality of life. At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, our skilled pediatricians and family medicine providers are committed to supporting children and their families during every phase of childhood. One important part of this mission is screening for symptoms of conditions like autism and making timely diagnoses to help start personalized treatment plans. To learn more about getting evaluated for autism, contact us today.