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While there are many common characteristics within Autism Spectrum Disorders, communication (processing disorders), behavioral issues and lack of social understanding are the three that are universal across the spectrum.
Just as no two snowflakes are alike, each individual with ASD expresses these characteristics in unique ways.
• Limited to no eye contact
• Rarely smiles when smiled at
• Often fails to respond to his or her name or the sound of a familiar voice
• May not follow objects visually
• May not point or wave goodbye or use other gestures to communicate
• May not make noises to get your attention
• May not initiate or respond to cuddling
• May not imitate your movements or facial expressions
• May not reach to be picked up
• May not play with people or share interest and enjoyment
• May not ask for help or make other basic requests
• Lack of back and forth conversation
In less severe cases on the spectrum (Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) or Asperger’s Syndrome), children usually have speech and might even be intellectually gifted, but they have one or more “autistic” social and behavioral problems.
There are several behavioral milestones to look for if your child is under the age of three:
• No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or shortly thereafter.
• No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months or shortly thereafter.
• No babbling by 12 months.
• No gesturing (pointing, waving bye-bye) by 12 months
• Limited to no words by 16 months
• No two-word meaningful phrases without imitating by 24 months
• Any loss of speech or social skills at any age
As we see in the above signs, the hallmark indicator of ASD is impaired social interaction. A child’s primary caregivers are usually the first to notice the signs. Some children begin to show these signs as early as infancy. A baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time. A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement. Many children with ASD fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with others. They have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they cant understand social cues, such as tonality or facial expressions. They do not watch other peoples faces for clues about appropriate behavior and can lack empathy. As a child with ASD grows up they tend to have difficulty in seeing another persons perspective on a situation (not understanding other point of views). Many children with ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging. They also go into what is commonly called a ‘meltdown’, extended episodes of head-banging and ranting that can last for hours (most often when they are younger). They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me”. Children with ASD don’t know how to play with other children and therefore can be labeled as loners or outsiders making it hard to fit in later in life. Some children speak about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person with whom they are speaking.
Another telling sign that a child may be affected by autism is the behaviors he/she display. Rather than play chase with their cars, they may line them up instead. In fact. ‘pretend play’ is very challenging for a child with autism. Repetitive motions may make them look different from their peers as well. Please realize that children do develop at their own rate and that guidelines are just that- guidelines. If you have concerns write them down in a journal to to take with you on your next trip to the pediatrician or psychologist office who specializes in children on the spectrum or to a neuro-psychologist center for a diagnosis. During the assessment process, you may meet with an audiologist to screen for hearing loss, a speech therapist and an occupational therapist to look at fine motor skills (the ability to grab objects or crawl are examples). Remember, your child is not the diagnosis, nor does it define your family. It is a name used to determine the types of therapy and treatments your child may need.