By: Barika Butler, MD, MHCM-Chief Medical Officer-Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority
It is finally spring! You take a walk through the park and notice two young children, about age four, playing in the sandbox. They sit side by side, quietly pushing sand around, not interacting with each other but enjoying their time with the sand and the sun. One of these children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. Can you tell which one?
ASD often referred to as Autism, is a group of Disorder usually characterized by challenges in social interaction, communication, and repetitive behaviors or interests. Autism is usually diagnosed in childhood and does not currently have a cure. No two people with Autism are the same, just as no two people are the same. How, then, can you tell which of the children above, or anyone for that matter, has Autism? The simple answer is that just by walking past these two children in the park, you may not be able to tell at all. Many children, and adults are able to function in the world, thrive at school, maintain friendships, travel with their families, and work for a living. They may be playing in the sand alongside another child in the park right now. There are other people with Autism, who will present with some uniqueness and challenges including behavioral concerns, learning difficulties, speech disturbances, and others.
As a child psychiatrist, I am often asked, everywhere from PTO meetings to quiet whispers in my office, how would one know their loved one has Autism? My answer is simple. Autism presents with unique symptoms for each person; there is no one size fits all. With that, I always recommend an evaluation by certified professionals, including engagement from parents and caregivers, child psychiatrists, psychologists and others specializing in testing and assessment, including school professionals. Although it can be difficult to navigate, your pediatrician and your child’s teacher or school counselor are great places to start.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports a steady increase in the prevalence of Autism in the US, having increased from 1 in 150 children in the year 2000 to 1 in 59 in 2014, with a notable increase of 15% between 2012 and 2014. Although there are many theories as the why the numbers are increasing, I believe some of it can be attributed to teachers, parents, and pediatricians being aware of the symptoms and seeking help for their loved ones. One of the most important aspects of treating Autism and allowing your child the best chance at doing their best is early intervention.
Here are some ways you can be proactive about your child’s health:
* Milestones! Track your child’s milestones, which monitor over time how they are learning, moving, speaking, interacting and developing physically and cognitively. There are a number of apps that can help track milestones, including one offered by the CDC for free, in English and Spanish.
* Discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician early and often. As a parent and a doctor, I take my doctor’s hat off when I visit with my children’s physician, and ask a lot of questions. Remember when you were young and you were told, there are no stupid questions? This is true in your doctor’s office too. We want to hear from you. I always tell my patients “I am the expert in medicine, YOU are the expert when it comes to your child.” Understanding and healing is a team effort. Speak up early, often, and loudly.
* Engage your school or other early intervention programs in your area. Your school and daycare staff spend significant time with your child. Ask them for input on symptoms and for resources to help your child thrive.
* Get an evaluation. When in doubt, trust your gut and listen to the signals that your child or loved one is sending.
* Build a team. The optimal care for a child with Autism is a team sport. Your team may include a child psychiatrist, therapist, social worker, school counselor, speech and language therapist, and occupational therapist.
* Know your rights. People with Autism have medical and educational rights that must be addressed. Enlist health care advocates as needed.
* Reach out. Autism Speaks is an excellent resource. Their Autism Response Team will help you navigate the system from screening and diagnosis to education and job placement.
*Call The Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. We are Here to Talk. Here to Help. Call our 24/7 helpline at 1-800-241-4949. We can help you start your journey to a fulfilling life for you, your child, and your family.