By Bobbi Sheahan and Kathy DeOrnellas, Ph.D.
Autism. It seems that it’s in the news every day, and it is a greatly feared diagnosis among parents. Should you be worried about it?
Let’s say your child isn’t talking by his second birthday, or her senses seem calibrated differently than those of other kids. Or, maybe you just have a gut feeling that she isn’t connecting with people. Maybe people are pointing out that your child is walking around on tiptoe or pacing the perimeter of the playground instead of interacting with others. Perhaps your child has had a shocking meltdown, or a series of them, and, if your experience is like that of many parents of children with special needs, the world’s response has been less than kind.
Whatever (or whoever) has brought it to your attention, you know that you are going to need to seek some answers. Where do you start? Who do you trust? And what can you expect?
In other words, you want someone who, in addition to being capable and experienced with autism, actually remembers when they had never heard of autism and is willing to educate you in a respectful way.
What we highly recommend: A knowledgeable parent or special education teacher can guide you towards a psychologist or neurologist who works with people with autism day in and day out. If you have a university in your city or town, the faculty of the psychology department may be able to guide you towards useful help.
Once you find a professional to assess your child, what sort of things will that person be looking for? Some of the hallmarks of autism are:
Communication challenges: This can include delayed speech, odd and repetitive speech patterns, difficulty with receptive language, difficulty forming words, challenges with following the flow of a conversation, repeating what others have said, or even the inability to speak at all.
Social differences: Your child may be socially immature, engaging in solitary or parallel play long after his age-mates have begun forming meaningful friendships. He may avoid touch or eye contact or stiffen when held. Perhaps she might patrol the perimeter of the park or swing endlessly, or spin in circles, instead of interacting with other kids.
Repetitive behaviors: Your child may repeat the same behaviors over and over – lining up or stacking toys. These behaviors are self-stimulating and are called “stimming” behaviors. Your child may insist on rigid routines and greet any deviation from the routine with a very loud, attention-grabbing temper tantrum that irritates store employees, frustrates other customers, and embarrasses you and your family. Other common symptoms include sleep disorders, poor fine motor coordination, and general clumsiness.
Maybe it’s autism. Maybe it’s not. If it is, you can — and must — be an advocate for your child, and for yourself. Reach out to therapists and support groups; they can be found in every community and online. A lot of learning takes place when parents talk to each other. Don’t be afraid; knowledge is power!
Bobbi Sheahan, and Kathy DeOrnellas, Ph.D. are the authors of What I Wish I’d Known About Raising a Child With Autism; A Mom and a Therapist Offer Heartfelt Guidance for the First Five Years (Future Horizons, 2011). It is available at in bookstores, online, and wherever books are sold. More information about the authors can be found at www.kathydeornellasphd.net and www.bobbisheahan.com.