Autism: When to Seek Medical Advice
Author: Dr. Anna Kaplan
Do You Suspect Your Child Has Autism? If you suspect your child may have autism, or any other developmental delay, you should get medical advice immediately. The earlier a diagnosis is made, the earlier appropriate treatment can be started.
The spectrum of autistic disorders is a wide one. Children can be severely affected or have much more subtle developmental delays.
Autism can begin to appear as early as 6 months of age. Some parents will be able to sense that something is not right, but not be able to point to a specific event or behavior. Most parents are aware of a problem when the child is 15 to 18 months old. Some children with autism do not develop language and other communication skills normally; others seem to be developing at a normal rate and then start to lose function and abilities. The same can be said of their social skills.
Pediatricians are taught to screen children for autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening at 9 months, 18 months and 24 months of age even when a parent has not mentioned specific concerns. However, if your child's behavior seems very wrong to you, if your child is losing skills, or anything else has alarmed you, you should not wait for a regular check up. Take your child to the doctor. Share all of your concerns. Beforehand, jot down notes about things you notice.
When evaluating your child, your doctor will ask about other problems. Were there any difficulties with your pregnancy or the baby's birth? Can your child hear normally? Does your child have any other neurologic problems, for example, poor muscle strength for his or her age, or inability to use limbs? Does any similar condition run in your family? Your doctor should be able to tell if your child is in general good health and does not have any other obvious neurologic problem which can co-exist with autism.
The doctor will try and use simple screening tools in the office to get more information. Depending on the child's age, there are a number of things the doctor can do. There are questionnaires as well as specific ways the doctor will interact with your child to assess language, communication, and social skills. Even if the doctor suspects autism, he or she will refer your child for a hearing test. The doctor will probably refer your child to the agency or group that is set up to diagnose autism in your area. This can include a pediatric subspecialist as well as other team members such as speech therapists.
Once autism is suspected, your child should be referred to an early intervention program. These are subsidized by the government to help special needs children. At or after age three, this referral would be to the special education department in the local school district. You want your child to be getting help as soon as possible.
The reason you should seek immediate help if you suspect your child has autism is that the earlier a child is diagnosed, the better he or she is likely to do with treatment. While there is no cure for autism, behavioral therapy, and sometimes medication, can help a child progress and acquire new skills instead of falling farther behind. Studies have shown that earlier treatment leads to better results.
Early intervention will help you and the rest of the family, so that you can learn how to help your autistic child.
Autistic Children Tend To Have Certain Other Medical Problems
There are other times to seek medical care for your autistic child. 11 to 39% of autistic children have seizures. Children with severe autism are more likely to have seizures, which often begin around either the age of 5 years or during adolescence. Seizures must be evaluated and treated medically.
Autistic children frequently have problems with their gastrointestinal tract. They may be having pain, constipation, or other symptoms. There is increasingly more information being learned about autism and the intestinal tract. If your child seems to have symptoms of intestinal problems, or if your child's behavior has suddenly worsened, the doctor may want to evaluate this. Your child's doctor may be able to prescribe a diet and/or medication that will improve the symptoms. Sometimes, something as simple as constipation can cause a lot of distress, and can be easily treated.
Sleep disturbances are also very common. Often this will be addressed as a part of behavioral therapy, depending on the program. There are a number of ways to try and help change your child's bedtime behavior. Medication is rarely used, but there are times when it may be necessary, either for your child or for you if you are exhausted. There are some reports coming in that melatonin may help autistic children sleep. This is something to discuss with the doctor.
Autistic Children Still Need Regular Medical Care
Finally, you should seek medical advice just as you would with any other child if there is an injury or what appears to be a serious illness. Children with autism can come down with all the same illnesses that other children have. In fact, they may be more prone to infectious illnesses because their immune systems may not be working at full strength.
Sometimes a worsening of behavior in an autistic child is due to an illness or injury that is causing pain. If your child's behavior suddenly deteriorates, a trip to the doctor is a good idea.
If you think about calling a doctor for help, it is a good rule to assume that you probably should.