5 Things You Need to Know About Autism

By Ernst Lamothe Jr.

Physician Michelle Hartley-McAndrew runs the autism center at Oishei Children’s Hospital.
Physician Michelle Hartley-McAndrew runs the autism center at Oishei Children’s Hospital.

There has been a significant increase of autism spectrum disorder diagnoses in the last 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are three million individuals in the United States and tens of millions worldwide who have autism.

While having a child with autism can present some challenges, this diagnosis does not mean that all hope is lost. Half the battle with any diagnosis is understanding what the condition means, how to be proactive in treatment and managing the condition so that the child can still have a high quality of life.

“It is essential to let people know that having a child with autism spectrum disorder can be challenging but extremely rewarding,” said physician Michelle Hartley-McAndrew, who runs the autism center at Oishei Children’s Hospital and teaches pediatrics and neurology at the University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “People who are diagnosed have many different strengths and challenges.”

Here are five key facts you need to know about autism in children, according to Hartley-McAndrew.

1. Early detection helps

When it comes to treatment options, early intervention can improve learning, communication and social skills.

In 2018, the CDC determined that approximately one in 59 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at their 18- and 24-month well-child checkup.

Much was not previously known about what causes the disorder, but research is showing that some combination of environmental influences and rare gene changes can contribute to the development of autism, which impacts early brain development.

“A child’s brain continues to develop in the early stages so the earlier we are able to diagnose, the quicker we are able to support and teach the child while improving speech, behavior and social skills,” said Hartley-McAndrew.

2. Watch early signs

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by differences in social skills and social communication, along with the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors. Some early signs can often be detected in infants and toddlers, though for some children, their symptoms are more detectable as they age.

A child could struggle with understanding spoken language, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice. However, the issue is that because it is a spectrum some children with autism may have limited to no speech, while others may be very talkative.

“If the child is not showing any smile or joyful expressions in the first six months, if the child is not mimicking sounds or facial gestures by 10 months if the child is not responding to their name by 12 months, if the child is not using words by 16 months, these are some signs that they may be autistic,” Hartley-McAndrew said.

3. Autism is a spectrum

Besides differences in social skills, social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors, other signs of autism spectrum disorder are the unexpected reactions to sounds, tastes, sights, touch and smells, difficulty understanding other people’s emotions, focusing on or becoming obsessed by a narrow range of interests or objects and engaging in repetitive behavior. However, things should be looked at with a case by case basis.

“They say if you have met one child with autism then you have met one child with autism. Every child is different and should be treated as such when being diagnosed and in the selection of an action plan for developing their skills,” she added. “Some children may have a strong aversion to some sensory input.”

4. Boys are diagnosed at a higher rate

Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. According to research from the nonprofit agency Autism Speaks, one in 37 boys and one in 151 girls will be diagnosed with autism. This disorder can be reliably diagnosed by 2 years of age, but most children are not actually diagnosed until after the age of 4.

“Research says that boys are diagnosed more than girls. There could be various reasons for that,” said Hartley-McAndrew. There is still more research that needs to be done to figure out and an exact reason for this cause.”

5. No connection to vaccination and autism

Because autism spectrum disorder is still something that is not readily talked about in various circles, there are a few myths that continue to stand out. Even in television shows some people with autism are shown in a stereotypical and one-dimensional lens.

“It is essential that people know there is no correlation between vaccines and children having autism,” said Hartley-McAndrew. “In fact, there has been various scientific studies published in March 2019 that disproves any theory that vaccines trigger autism. This was a study in Denmark where 600,000 children were examined. Hopefully people understand that this is just a myth.”