Autism Diagnosis & Interventions

When your child struggles to fit into the social world of others, seems to “march to a different drummer”, or has difficulty with everyday functioning, you, as a parent, may be overwhelmed finding the right help for your child. You may feel like you are an island trying the navigate the incoming storm and waves of change. You are not alone. Many parents have been in your shoes and have found support in the storm, although the path to getting help was daunting.

As a psychologist, I have seen how a diagnosis, specific interventions, and community supports have helped with a families understanding of autism, ways to interact with their child, and how to optimize the child’s functioning across multiple settings. While in the midst of the storm, know that your best days are ahead when you have others to walk with you through the seemingly overwhelming circumstances.

How common is autism?

The prevalence of autism has risen sharply over the past 40 years. In 1980, the prevalence of autism in the population was 4 in 10,000. Currently (2020), the prevalence of autism has increased to 1 in 54 (Center for Disease Control and Prevention- Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network). According to the CDC, more boys are diagnosed with autism than girls. However, in general, girls tends to be more communicative and social, compared to boys, which may contribute to girls not being diagnosed or being misdiagnosed.

How do you know if your child is exhibiting characteristics consistent with autism?

First of all, it is important to remember each child has his/her own unique personality, so symptoms of autism are typically expressed within a child’s unique personality traits or expressed interests. However, the following characteristics may be considered as indicative of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis:*

  • tends to avoid eye contact
  • shows little interest in caregivers
  • withdraws from social exchanges with same-aged peers
  • struggles with peer relationships
  • seems to be in his her own little world
  • seems immature for his/her age
  • prefers adults over children
  • gets upset with minor changes in his/her schedule
  • shows rigidity in routine or thinking 
  • sometimes called quirky or a “little professor”  (knowing everything correcting others)
  • struggles with language expression or interpreting language (especially social language or pragmatic language)
  • talks “at you”, but not “with you”
  • expresses very few words for his/her developmental age
  • shows language regression (typically between18-20 months)
  • flat affect or intonation
  • Behavioral concerns (inattention, unware of personal space, struggles with his/her body in space)
  • does not like the consistency of certain foods
  • bright lights/sounds seems to get him/her upset
  • repeats phrases or behaviors
  • unusual sensory experiences
  • indifferent to pain or extreme adverse reaction to pain

*It is important to remember that not all of these characteristics will be displayed with each child. The above characteristics are presented as guidelines for some typical presentations of ASD.

Why is diagnosis important?

Although studies have continually shown that early diagnosis and intervention are key for optimal outcomes, in my experience many times children are misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed well into adulthood. In addition, I have talked to many parents who have been frustrated by the process of finding a diagnosis (e.g., long waiting lists, less-informed doctors, etc.). Given the critical timing of a correct diagnosis, a complete psychological evaluation is recommended to uncover the unique presentation of symptoms a child is displaying and the most effective ways to intervene to help the child. Early intervention may include:

  • behavioral strategies
  • speech and language therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • sensory strategies
  • school interventions and accommodations
  • social skills training
  • social thinking strategies
  • executive functioning strategies
  • emotional regulation treatment
  • daily living skills support

Outcomes for ASD increase greatly with targeted early intervention and appropriate support strategies.

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