Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, affecting one in 68 children – a ten-fold increase in the last four decades.
April is Autism Awareness Month, an ideal time to draw attention to the disorder. Although scientists know more about the disorder than ever before, they're still not sure why some children develop autism. Genetics and environment are thought to play a role.
"Each child with autism is unique," says Maureen Villasenor, MD, a pediatrician with
St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Tustin. "Autism spectrum disorder or ASD is a range of complicated neurodevelopment disorders. Children with ASD have social and communication challenges and may engage in restricted and repetitive behavior like becoming fixated on certain toys. But it's a myth that all children with autism have intellectual disabilities. Many children have normal to above average intelligence."
In the United States, 1 out of 42 boys and 1 out of 189 girls are diagnosed with autism, Dr. Villasenor says.
Given the scope of the disorder, Dr. Villasenor says it's understandable that parents, particularly new parents, question whether their children are doing the things they're supposed to – like laughing, talking and playing – by certain ages. Dr. Villasenor says she frequently answers questions from parents about the warning signs of autism and screens all children for autism at their 18-month well visit with a standardized screening tool.
"The most common feature of autism spectrum disorder is impaired social interaction. That means that a baby with autism spectrum disorder may not respond to other people or ignore others to focus entirely on something. Sometimes, children appear to have near normal development and then withdraw after 18 months old," she said.
Some behaviors are red flags, Dr. Villasenor says.
"Look for behaviors like not responding to his name or avoiding eye contact. Many children with autism spectrum disorder rock, twirl, bite or bang their hands. They may not know how to play with other children. Some speak in a sing-song voice about only a few topics."
Some children with autism have severe symptoms while others are mildly affected.
Dr. Villasenor points to these behaviors as early indicators of autism spectrum disorder:
- Doesn't babble or point by age 1
- No single words by 16 months or two-word phrases by age 2
- Doesn't respond to his name
- Loss of language or social skills
- Poor eye contact
- Lines up toys or objects a lot
- Doesn't smile or respond
Later indicators include:
- Difficulty making friends with peers
- Difficulty starting or holding a conversation with others
- Limited or lack of imaginative and social play
- Stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
- Limited patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
- Preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
- Focused on adhering to routines or rituals
"Every child develops differently but some developmental delays may be a cause for further screening. If you're worried or have concerns, talk to your pediatrician," Dr. Villasenor said. "We're here to help you and your child."
For more information about St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, click here. For more information about Dr. Villasenor, click