Detecting and combating Autism

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Most of the time my baby does things that are delightful: Offer a little smile, make a funny new sign, show a new sign of skill or advancement. But there are sometimes little things, beyond the typical cold or funky mood, that makes me worry.

There are moments when my son seems to be distracted, looking off into the distance or he is slow to respond. The answers why are probably very benign - something over my shoulder has his attention or he is tired. But then, my husband quietly asked a question that I imagine every parent asks at some point with an infant: When will we know if there is something seriously wrong, if he has a developmental delay or something like autism?

For years, the prevailing wisdom was that serious disorders, like autism, couldn't be diagnosed and treated until three or so. But since 2007 the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that children be screened as early as 18 months.

What should you use as a ruler at home to decide it's time to bring in the doctor? According to the website, there are certain rules of thumb you can check. Around four months, an infant should smile back at you; turn towards sound; and follow and react to bright colors and movement. Around six months, the little one should be cooing and babbling, smile during play and cry when unhappy. Around nine months, there should be a lot of back and forth, as baby starts to "talk" with you, play and interact.

That list calmed me down. My baby is on track. But thousands of parents will very likely check that website or another and get queasy. What do you do if your child is not on track?

Last fall, TIME Magazine did a special issue on Autism. In it, writer Claudia Wallis cited a groundbreaking new study that early intervention is critical in helping a child with autism progress. In the study, researchers divided the children up. It gave some - called the Early Start Denver model group - 15 hours a week of one-on-one time with therapists and also trained parents to do another 16 hours of therapy at home. The other group of kids got about nine hours a week one-on-one with a therapist and another nine hours in a specialized playgroup.

The results were startling. In two years, the kids in the Denver model group had their IQs jump 17.6 points, to levels that were within the range of "normal" intelligence. The control group just gained 7 points and stayed outside the norm. The Denver model kids also had a jump in every day behavior, doing things like getting dressed, brushing teeth and interacting at mealtime. Children in the other group, improved much more slowly, staying outside the norm.

Researchers thought a key factor with the Denver model was getting parents so deeply involved in their child's care, helping them mirror constructive work and play at home.

So whether it's getting a hold of the checklist on autism and keeping an eye on your child; insisting a doctor look again or refer you to a specialist if you think something's not right with your baby; or getting deeply involved in his therapy and care, what they say about parents is true. No one knows your child like you do and no one can make a difference for him like you can.

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