Getting a diagnosis - if indeed a child has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - as early as possible is important because research shows that early intervention is the best intervention. Yet, not all pediatricians recognize the early signs of a possible ASD.
Although diagnosis rates of autism are up, this does not mean that all doctors or medical professionals are aware of the different signs of autism in different types of babies and toddlers. A diagnosis is made by observing the behavioral characteristics in three areas : communication, social interactions, and imaginative play or thought. As there are no physical characteristics that are shared by those in the spectrum, and there is a wide range of abilities and disabilities - it is not always easy to identify.
The difficulty is that right now, there is no medical test that can be given to tell if a person has autism or not. Not all children with autism develop in the same way. For example, my son as a child, never reached his developmental milestones, had to have physical therapy to learn how to sit up on his own, crawl and walk. By age two, he only had two words. He would spin the same toy over and over if left to his own devices. He never reached out towards other children when in group situations. Another child I know who also has the label of autism hit all his developmental milestones as a baby, but never slept through the night, and had chronic diarrhea. Around 18 months he began to stop speaking, he began to line up toys over and over and no longer initiated social interaction with his parents or siblings . As a toddler, he was very active and had a hard time staying still for any amount of time.
Often it is the mom who has a concern, because her baby boy is not going through the developmental milestones at the usual pace, and so she will discuss it with the pediatrician. If the pediatrician is not very knowledgeable about autism, he may tell mom to wait a few months and come back, saying that boys don't always develop as quickly as girls.
What ASD's looks like at the different ages and different places on the spectrum is variable. Thus, choosing the right professional is important. For example, a baby may go through all the developmental milestones, but at around age 8 or 9 there may be concerns about how he is relating to other children his own age, or he may start having problems with the organizational aspects of the homework when projects over time are given has homework. This child may have Asperger's Syndrome, which looks different than your typical classic autism (non-verbal, no social skills at all) which is apparent much earlier.
In the past many children, teens and adults with Asperger's Syndrome (AS) were mis-diagnosed as having mental illnesses or learning disabilities, thus impeding there access to the information and strategies that would be most helpful to them. It is important when getting assessments for a child or teen for possible diagnosis of Asperger's that the professional (usually a psychologist) observe the person in different environments as well as assess in an office. This is because a person with AS may very well recite the correct answers to questions of what to do in specific situations, but when it comes to the reality, they have not internalized the information to be able to apply it to themselves.
My advice : follow your instincts. If you are the parent, you know your baby or child best because you spend the most time with him or her. If you think there is something wrong, there probably is. The important thing is to find the right person who can tell you if your baby, child, or teen has an ASD. Remember, in all that you do, you are not alone. There are many people in your situation, looking for answers. Take the first step and see a professional who can help you.
If you are a parent wondering whether or not your baby is reaching his developmental milestones, there is a list of them on the First Signs website: http://www.firstsigns.org/healthydev/milestones.htm
Keep in mind that some children have regressive type autism - they develop in the usual way and then lose skills previously learned. Also, this checklist does not include the gastrointestinal challenges that many babies suffer from, so keep those in mind as well.
To find a professional familiar with autism diagnosis in your geographical area, contact other parents who have gone through the diagnostic process in your area. You can find them by contacting local autism organizations in your area:
Autism Society of America (ASA) - You can find a chapter by going to this page on their website:
Talk About Curing Autism Now (TACA): http://meetup.tacanow.org/
National Autism Association: http://www.nationalautismassociation.org/localchapter.php
If you think your baby or child has an ASD, it is important to seek the advice of a professional who is knowledgeable about the behavioral symptoms as well as the diagnostic criteria - and the sooner, the better.