The prevalence of autism has risen to 1 in every 68 births in the United States and almost 1 in 42 boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest autism prevalence report released last month.
The report tracks autism rates in 11 communities in the U.S., representing about 9 percent of all eight-year-olds. None of the communities tracked are in California.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that occurs when the brain has trouble functioning properly. It affects a child’s ability to speak, learn, and communicate with others. While there is no cure for autism, early intervention can help. Children who are diagnosed at a young age and receive early intervention services show improvements in learning and communication skills.
But according to the CDC report, only 44% of children identified with ASD were evaluated for developmental concerns by the time they were three years old. On average, most children were not diagnosed until after age four, even though children can be diagnosed as early as age 2.
Currently, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all toddlers for autism at ages 18 and 24 months. Still, a growing number of researchers believe that screening can and should start even earlier.
Early Warning Signs
Autism can be difficult to diagnose because it affects each child differently, but there are signs parents should look out for. As soon as you notice symptoms, you should talk to your doctor or health care provider.
- Eye Contact. Autistic children make little or no eye contact.
- Speech. Look for late speaking or no speaking at all. Some autistic children have trouble expressing needs or do not respond to verbal communication.
- Relationships. Sometimes autistic children have difficulty relating to other people, prefer to be alone, or don’t like to cuddle.
- Play. Children are naturally active and creative, so take note if your child doesn’t play. Also keep in mind that autistic behavior sometimes includes unusual play patterns like spinning objects over and over.
- Extreme Behaviors. Watch for extreme behavior like too much laughing or crying for no reason, tantrums, and sensitivity to pain (or lack of it). Sometimes autistic kids don’t have a natural fear of danger, and are fixated on certain objects for a long time. Repetitive movements like hand-flapping also can be an early sign.
The Sooner, the Better
Since there are no specific medical tests for autism, it’s important that parents, caretakers, teachers, and health care providers pay close attention to a child’s communication, behavior, and development. Screenings for autism can take time, so get started as soon as symptoms are noticed.
- Early Intervention. By starting treatment at an early age (0 to 3) when the brain is developing, children can make great progress by the time they start kindergarten.
- Treatment. Children with autism benefit from programs that help develop their communication, social and mental skills, such as speech therapy, diet, and treatments that focus on improving relationships.
Developmental Screening. Ask your pediatrician or visit a First 5 Center to start developmental screening for your child. Screening services can start when babies are 6 months old. While developmental screening does not diagnose autism, it can identify areas of concern at an early age and indicate whether children need further assessments.
California Department of Developmental Services. For children under age 3, call 1-800-515-BABY (2229) and select the “Early Start” extension number. For children ages 3 and 5, call First 5 California at 1-800-KIDS-025 for screening services.
The Autism Society of America (ASA). The ASA has chapters throughout California and provides information on symptoms and treatments.