When Rina and Joe found out they were having a boy – after having had four daughters in a row – the whole family was elated. The girls were thrilled they would have a little brother to dote over, and Rina fantasized about a little boy who’d be the spitting image of the man she’d loved since she was 16.
When little Jamie was born (on Christmas Day, no less) the family was beside themselves with joy. As the weeks and months passed, they showered their bundle of happiness with all the love, care and attention they could – noticing, and dismissing, that their little boy wasn’t developing nearly as quickly as the first four children.
“I’d had four kids, and we come from a really big Italian-American family, so a lot of people have a lot of things to say, including me,” admits Rina. “There was a lot of talk about how Jamie was just, like, different from all the other kids. I was making excuses, like ‘Oh, he’s a boy, he just doesn’t connect like the girls do,’ and my sisters would give me side-eye, like, ‘You’re in denial, Rina.’
“At a year old, Jamie still wasn’t doing any of the things his sisters or the other kids did, like copying gestures or making expressions. We play a lot of music in the house and he never smiled or reacted to any of it. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He wouldn’t respond or light up when we said his name.
“We started ticking off all the boxes and eventually it was like, ‘Okay. We can’t ignore any of this.’”
Although Rina had read that autism spectrum disorder is typically difficult to diagnose before two years of age, she consulted with a family friend – a therapist whose own son was diagnosed with autism before 24 months – and decided to seek help. It was a great decision – the signs she and her family had detected helped lead them to an early diagnosis.
What are the red flags in babies and toddlers?
While an official diagnosis can only be made by a licensed professional, here are some of the signs you can watch out for:
By 6 months, your baby may not smile or exhibit any other joyful expressions
By 9 months, your baby may not make facial expressions, mimic sounds or even smile
By 12 months, your baby may not respond to his or her name; engage in baby babble; point, reach or wave; or engage in back-and-forth gestures
By 16 months, your child is not speaking even simple words
By 24 months, your child is unable to make meaningful two-word phrases (unless repeating after you)
At any stage, your baby or toddler may not do one or more of the following:
Make eye contact
Smile when smiled at
Follow objects or your gestures to follow an object
Respond to his or her name
Make noises or requests for your attention
Copy or imitate your facial expressions or movements
Play with other kids or you
Care if you are hurt or uncomfortable
Respond to cuddling or affection
Is my child’s autism my fault?
Sometimes, parents of children newly diagnosed with autism blame themselves or each other. Some moms think she shouldn’t have had coffee; some dads have blamed themselves for sitting in front of a computer for too long.
It’s important to remember that ASD is in no way your fault – it has nothing to do with your behaviors, your feelings, your desire for your child, or how strict you were with your diet while pregnant. There are many, many types of autism out there, with no single cause known, and even scientists and experts are still just beginning to learn about all the different environmental or genetic factors that come into play for some of the types of autism.
According to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of every 88 children has autism in this country. 1 out of every 100 adults has autism. Each case is unique, but take comfort that you and your family are not alone in this.
Following an autism diagnosis, here are some of the things you can do:
Provide your child with structure. Structure and routine make any child feel safe; even more so for a child on the spectrum. Do your best to create a schedule every day so your child experiences consistency (i.e. waking up at the same time every day, having breakfast together, showering at the same time either at night or in the morning, and so on). If your child is in school or in therapy, get involved and find out what your child’s therapists are teaching, and make sure you’re implementing those same techniques at home. This encourages your child to take what they’ve learned and use it in all areas of their life, everywhere they know, whether that’s at home, in the playground, or at the clinic.
Reinforce positively. Hearing “That’s wonderful!” or “Great work!” goes a much farther way than hearing “No!” “Don’t do that!” or “Stop that!” all the time. Reward good behavior by giving them a star or encouraging them to play with one of their favorite toys every time you witness them act in an appropriate way or whenever they learn a new skill.
Connect in a non-verbal way. You may be used to connecting with other children or other people by talking or hugging or patting them on the back – ways that may not work well with a child on the spectrum. Instead, try to learn your child’s ‘language,’ the ways they communicate when they’re tired or hungry, the facial expressions they exhibit or the sounds they may make when they’re trying to tell you something. Pay close attention to when they’re having a tantrum – remember that a tantrum from a child with ASD isn’t because they’re ‘bad,’ it’s because they’re frustrated that you’re not picking up their non-verbal cues. They’re just trying to get your attention. Learn how to master this here.
Have fun with your child. Even with autism, life should be filled with joyful moments. If you’re scheduling therapy sessions and bedtimes, you should also be scheduling playtime. It shouldn’t always be about learning and working and getting through challenges – it should also be about fun and joy. Learn how to have fun and be structured here.
Inquire about individualized education plans (IEP). Once your child is ready to go to school, it would be a great benefit to your whole family to ask about an IEP. An IEP is a written document that explains a child’s education, and is always customized to the student’s needs for optimal benefit. This legal document contains the school’s goals for the year, the services that will be required to assist the child meet those goals, and methods to evaluate the child’s progress throughout the year. Typically, several people come together to develop an IEP, including at least one of the child’s parents, the teacher, a representative of the educational agency (someone who’s qualified to provide or supervise special education) and any other individuals who may be requested by either the parent or the agency, like a physician or another advocate.
Enroll your child in ABA therapy. Applied behavior analysis is the process of systematically applying interventions in an effort to improve a child’s behaviors. It teaches social, motor and verbal behaviors, and even reasoning skills. By using careful observation as well as positive reinforcement, the child attending ABA therapy will benefit from a professional who will be able to determine what happens to trigger a behavior and then what happens after that behavior to reinforce it; the goal then is to remove those triggers and reinforcers from that child’s environment by teaching him or her a different behavior in response to similar triggers. No negative effects have ever been found using the ABA approach. Find out the benefits here.
Look into occupational therapy. Occupational therapy (OT) is key to intervention required in the home or the classroom – by promoting, maintaining and developing skills needed by students to be functional in a classroom setting, the child who participates in OT will learn self-esteem, independence, self-confidence, and improved social interaction. An occupational therapist may even help the child develop handwriting skills, fine motor skills and a host of daily living skills. The child then will learn to become calmer, more focused and more confident to go through any situation at home or in school.
Find out about the availability of services and resources in your state. Be your child’s greatest advocate and find out what proper educational supports are available to your child. Support for autism is growing, as it is a critical public health issue that impacts millions of Americans year after year. This means that there may be early care and education services available to you, as well as early intervention, and primary health care that could benefit your child – and you.
If your child has recently been diagnosed with autism and you’re looking for guidance, information and support, visit us at www.allianceabatherapy.com.
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