There’s nothing quite as rewarding, challenging, and at times downright scary as parenting. The childrearing path is filled with touching moments, sometimes seemingly insurmountable struggles, and mind-boggling joy. While there’s no one correct way to raise a child, all parents and caregivers share a common wish that their children are healthy and have bright futures. What no parent or caregiver wants for their child is a difficult life.
With the prevalence of autism so high—the current estimates are that 1 in 54 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—it is certainly understandable to wonder if your child is on the spectrum when you notice anything unusual in their development. It is important not to rush to conclusions, but if that does turn out to be the case, the good news is that many excellent treatments, support services, and resources are available.
Of course, children develop at different rates, so just because your child doesn’t communicate or socially interact on the same level as their peers doesn’t necessarily mean your child is on the spectrum. Every child is unique, and autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that affects each person differently.
While ASD can be vastly different depending on the individual, there are some common characteristics that lead to a diagnosis. These signs are associated with social impairment, communication difficulties, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Children who do not have autism can also have these behaviors. Warning signs typically fall under three categories:
Social awareness challenges are some of the most common symptoms across all types of autism. Potential warning signs might include a child’s lack of interest in engaging with others, being unresponsive to their name, or preferring to play alone even when others show interest in playing together. A few other signs may include:
For many parents, the first sign that causes concern is when their child is not developing speech and language skills. Many young children have delayed speech, but there are other forms of communication to assess that may indicate signs of autism. A child with autism may use few or no communicative gestures, may frequently repeat specific words or phrases, or answer questions with statements that seem unrelated or scripted. A few other signs may include:
Unusual behaviors and interests
Behaviors that involve repeating certain actions, such as rocking back and forth or using an object over and over again in the same specific way, are commonly referred to as repetitive behaviors. Another red flag is referred to as rigidity, which can include becoming unusually upset or distraught over minor changes, or following strict, self-imposed routines. Some children also develop unusually strong interests in very specific things or conversational topics and may be unwilling or uninterested in talking about anything else. A few other signs may include:
It is not easy for parents and caregivers to learn that their child might have ASD. Even if you have concerns about your child’s development, it’s natural to wonder if they’re simply a late bloomer. It’s not unusual for concerned parents and caregivers to spend hours searching online to figure out what’s happening with their child. It’s good to be vigilant, but an official diagnosis is often required to gain access to treatments and therapies. That is why it’s crucial to understand key warning signs.
Scientists don’t have all the answers about autism. We don’t know what causes autism exactly or why rates have increased so much over the past two decades. Still, research has repeatedly shown that early intensive intervention can significantly improve long-term outcomes and quality of life for individuals with ASD.
Autism symptoms often surface between the ages of 12 and 24 months. Since a child’s brain is still forming at this age, early intervention can make a huge difference. At the same time, even if your child is older, it is well worth seeking treatment services. Well-designed behavioral interventions and high-quality therapy programs can still have huge benefits for a child of any age.
One of the most effective treatments available for autism is Applied Behavior Analysis, also known as ABA Therapy. Licensed behavior analysts oversee these programs who are professional clinicians who specialize in understanding what motivates a person to change challenging behaviors and teach complex life skills. ABA breaks down goals into very small steps that are manageable and easy to practice. By providing lots and lots of positive reinforcement and individualized guidance and tracking every small step and goal with detailed data, ABA can change the course of a child’s development and open a world of opportunities for learning and community participation.
There are various other treatments that parents may find helpful for their child, including speech therapy and occupational therapy. These treatments are much less intensive but can help focus on specialized areas of need, such and language development, and sensory challenges. Ideally, all treatment providers are working together to provide interdisciplinary care for the family, with everyone aligned around similar goals for the child. AZA United’s Family Support Team can help parents connect to different treatment providers and develop a personalized plan for success.
Intervention and Support
If you suspect your child has ASD, or your child has ASD and are living in Arizona, Arizona Autism United can provide services and resources to help.
This nonprofit community organization offers a wide variety of supports, services, and programs for individuals, families, schools, and the community. Our team of experienced clinicians works in partnership with parents to help children progress toward their goals and the family’s priorities as a team. We also have a Mental Health Counseling program to support individuals, families and couples.
Receiving an autism diagnosis can be a challenging experience for a parent or a caregiver to receive, but it doesn't mean anything is "wrong" with your child. Everyone is different, and all that matters is helping each child reach their potential. Receiving individualized interventions and supports at any stage of the journey helps everyone achieve their definition of success.