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Special Needs and Medical Challenges: Understanding Autism

Autism affects a person's ability to communicate, reason and interact with others. It is estimated that 1 in 250 people have autism, though its prevalence is rising. According to a recent report, autism is the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States - with 50 new children being diagnosed every day.

While there is no known single cause of autism, researchers have linked autism to abnormalities in brain structure and function. Current research studies are investigating possible links to environmental chemicals, toxins, viral infections, and genetics. Autism is not the result of "bad parenting." Nor is it a mental illness.

There are no specific symptoms or behaviors that definitively characterize this disorder. And there is no single medical test that identifies it. Autism is a "spectrum disorder," and its characteristics vary from person to person in type and severity.

Autism is typically diagnosed around age two, but signs can appear much earlier. Therefore, it is recommended that young children receive a developmental screening by their health care provider. In addition, their growth and developmental milestones should be monitored at each well-child visit.

While rates of development vary from child to child, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) lists five concerns that warrant further investigation:

*Does not babble or coo by 12 months
*Does not gesture (point, wave, grasp) by 12 months
*Does not say single words by 16 months
*Does not say two-word phrases by 24 months
*Has any loss of language or social skills at any age

Additional possible "red flags" during the early years may include:

*Lack of interest in social games such as peek-a-boo and pat-a-cake
*Lack of interest in imitation such as waving "bye bye" or blowing a kiss
*Inconsistent or limited eye contact
*Inconsistent response to sounds; may not respond when his/her name is called
*Failure to seek parents' attention to share an interest (for example, doesn't point to the sky to share interest in an airplane).

The presence of any of these behaviors does not necessarily indicate a diagnosis of autism. However, if parents note these or any concerns about their child's behavior or development, they are encouraged to consult with their child's health care provider as early as possible.
Because autism is a complex disorder, licensed professionals with specialized training and experience should make its diagnosis. A child's primary health care provider can provide appropriate referrals.

Experts agree that early identification and treatment are associated with better quality of life.

There are a number of organizations and agencies that provide information and support for children with autism and their families. These include:

Autism Society of America
Interdisciplinary Council of Developmental and Learning Disorders
National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR)
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsForParents.org. She is past chair of the National Parenting Education Network and author of "Positive Parenting," a weekly feature of the Miami Herald.

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