By Brent Ashbaugh
Does your baby make eye contact with you when being fed or played with? Is your baby desperate for attention? Does your baby follow objects visually when you move them in front of their face? Is your baby responding to his/her name or to a familiar voice? Does your baby play with other children, sharing their excitement with new things? If you answered yes to these questions, or to most of them, then you should feel some satisfaction that your baby is moving in the right direction. If all of these things are happening between birth and 18 months then your baby has reached some of the milestones that all children should be achieving if they are developing necessary cognitive skills. Some of the other milestones include; pointing at objects and waving at people, reaching out to be picked up, imitating movements and facial expressions, following your gesture when you point out things, and smiling when people (especially parents) smile at them. If, however, your child seems to be missing some of these milestones, he/she might have the early signs of autism.
Autism is defined by the Autism Society of America as a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. Children and adults with autism will normally have difficulty communicating both verbally and non-verbally. They will also have difficulty during social interactions and leisure or play activities. If your child is missing some of the aforementioned milestones it is very important to pay close attention to your child’s immediate developments.
Also, a warning sign of autism is a child regressing. For example, if your child was playing with others or speaking words and suddenly these activities stop, it is a serious warning sign that your child might be autistic. Missing a milestone or being a little slow to reach a milestone does not mean that your child has autism. It is quite normal for a child to be slower or faster than other children when developing certain skills, or to skip milestones altogether. However, a parent walks a thin line between overreaction and not being quick enough to recognize the signs of autism. The problem for parents is the timeline. If autism is detected and diagnosed before a child turns 18, there is a much better chance for the symptoms to be reversed and the brain to be “rewired”. The brain has a unique ability to adapt and change in young children. While autism can be very difficult to detect in children under 2 years old, it is important to have your child examined if you see some warning signs. Following is a list of a few milestones that children should be reaching at the ages of 12 and 18 months (the best time to spot autism is between 12 and 18 months old:
1 year old
* Crying when parents leave the room
* Imitating people
* Seeks attention through sounds or gestures
* Bangs, throws, drops or shakes objects
* Understands the word NO
* Tries to imitate words
* Pays attention to speech and responds to simple requests
* Walks holding onto furniture
* Crawls forward and pulls themselves up to standing position
* Eye contact while being fed
* Increased independence while still enjoying play with others
* Using several single words (mom, dad, boat, dog, etc.)
* Begins to show “attitude”
* Increased separation anxiety between 12 and 18 months which then lessens
* Finding objects when hidden
* Following simple instructions
* Walking alone
* Climbs up and down from furniture unassisted
* Carries toys or several toys while walking
* Turning over containers to pour out contents
* Dropping objects to see how they react
Living with an Autistic ChildThere is no known cure for autism. However, there are ways to help your child deal with the symptoms of autism. Most of the ways to help children deal with improving their communication skills and dealing with the symptoms and repetitive behaviours associated with autism. Medication has been shown to help alleviate some symptoms and your doctor should be able to recommend the proper medication if appropriate. The first thing parents should do is talk with their doctors. In this way, they may be able to get some useful information on agencies and therapies that can help their child. Here are a few techniques that may help parents of a child with autism: (note that these are just a few among many)
Recasting: This simple little trick involves always being the person that says the last word. If you child can only say “ca” then you repeat after them “cat”. If your child can say the word “dog” then you would repeat after them “nice dog”. You basically either complete a word for them to hear, or you add a word to any word they use. If it works then they child will eventually say “nice dog” to which you would repeat “nice brown dog”. In this way your child’s communication skills improve while also involving them socially.
Sign Language: Parents should learn a few simple words in sign language and use these to help communicate with their child. Research shows that the use of sign language increases the chance that children will learn spoken language. You could also point to a set of pictures or symbols on a board to help communicate with your child.
Singing: Encourage your child to sing along with a dvd or cd.
Provide Structure and Safety: When you know your own child’s behaviour (what makes them calm, what stresses them out, what triggers bad behavior), you will be able to tailor their therapies towards your own child and provide them a sense of structure and safety. You should be consistent, stick to a schedule, reward good behavior, and set up a safety zone in your home where your child can always feel safe, relaxed, and free from criticism.
Movement Based Exercises: In order to help the physical development of children with autism, parents should lead their children through movement based exercises. Think of Tai Chi when you try to envision movement based exercises. These can be as simple as helping a child move his or her legs in a walking motion to the child eventually doing squats or leg kicks by themselves. When helping a child through these exercises it is important to go slowly and really let them feel the movement and not be in a rush to do a certain number of moves every time. The child’s limbs should go through a full, healthy range of motion. Some people incorporate animal based movements when devising exercise programmes for their child.
It is important to start therapy immediately when you suspect your child might be autistic. Do not wait for an official diagnosis. If it turns out that they are not autistic then there is no harm done, and if they are autistic you have done your best to help your child deal with this difficult disorder.
Autism can no doubt be a difficult disorder to live with, but it is manageable with proper treatment and persistence. The key is to not give up at the first sign of failure and to keep up the treatments even if it seems there is no improvement in the child. Each child’s case of autism is different and different therapies can be moulded to each individual child, so keep experimenting until you find something that helps your child develop.