How do you tell if a child has autism?on April 13, 2012 @ 10:47 am (Updated: 9:32 am - 4/15/12 )
Kelly Andrus plays with her son Bradley, in his classroom at Children's Choice Learning Centers. Bradley, who turns three in a couple of weeks, was diagnosed a year ago with mild autism. (AP Photo)
A recent federal report found autism disorders are far more common than was previously understood, affecting 1 in 88 U.S. children. But what should a parent look for to determine whether their child might have autism?
Dr. Charles Cowan, Medical Director of Seattle Children's Hospital Autism Center, said the disorder isn't something that can be observed through a microscope, like cancer.
"Autism is a developmental disorder. That means it is related to functions in how the brain works, but also a disorder that, like other medical conditions, can't be defined biologically," said Cowan, in an appearance on 97.3 KIRO FM's Bill Radke Treatment.
Cowan explained autism is defined by behavioral differences, and that the difficulty in defining autism comes from the variability in cases.
"Which is why we are now talking about a spectrum disorder rather than a set of specific characteristics that characterize an individual person," said Cowan.
Bill Radke told Cowan he's observed differences in the way his twin son and daughter communicate, and has wondered if his son might be affected.
"What should I be looking for?" said Radke.
Cowan said he would first be interested in the child's medical history.
"It does turn out that certain kinds of medical conditions like premature birth, like difficult delivery, can add to the risk factors of subsequently developing autism."
Next, he said he would ask if the child had any trouble learning the usual skills that babies learn, such as learning to sit up, crawl, and walk. He would also be interested in how the child communicates, even non- verbally.
"Pointing is a very interesting phenomenon in young children. You can point to ask for something, or you can point to show somebody something," said Cowan. "It turns out that many autistic children will be able to point to ask for something, go get me that, and not to point to show you the airplane in the sky."
Cowan said the reason a child with autism would not point to the airplane is because pointing to show something is a more social form of communication. "It's a non-verbal but social communication."
He said the same type of distinction can be seen in a child's raising its arms to be lifted versus raising an arm to wave.
"Lifting your arms up is a request for somebody to do something for you, but waving hi and bye is a social gesture. So autistic children often will not do waving, but they will do lifting their arms up," said Cowan, "same motor function, same ability to move your body, but different communicative kind of functioning."
Cowan said delay of word development is also a common sign of autism. Development of speech seems to come almost effortlessly to many kids. They don't have to be taught. But he said that is not necessarily the case for a child with autism.
"Some people for reasons that we don't quite understand have trouble doing that effortlessly," said Cowan.
But even for people diagnosed with autism, Cowan said there is a wide range of potential to learn.
"For many, many, many children and adults, it is possible to teach those things," said Cowan. "But they don't come the effortless way that other children and adults learn how to socialize."
Evidence shows that children who are identified early and get help have the best chance for reaching their potential.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism screening for all children at age 18 months and 2 years.
By JAMIE GRISWOLD, MyNorthwest.com Editor
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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