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    The Latest on Autism

    How Is Autism Diagnosed?

    The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening children for autism as part of the 18-month and 24-month well-patient visits in addition to the developmental screening performed at all healthy child wellness visits. This policy helps health professionals identify signs of autism early. Developmental screening tools, such as the Ages and Stages Questionnaire or the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT), can help assess behavior.

    If a health professional discovers the following obvious signs of developmental delays, the child should immediately be referred for a full evaluation:

    • No babbling, pointing, or other gestures by 12 months
    • No single words by 16 months
    • No two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months, with the exception of repeated phrases
    • Any loss of any language or social skills at any age

    If your primary care provider does not have specific training or experience in developmental problems, he or she may refer your child to a specialist, usually a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, or child psychiatrist, for additional testing. If there are no obvious signs of developmental delays or any unusual indications from the screening tests, most infants and children do not need further evaluation until the next regular checkup.

    However, children who have a sibling with autism should continue to be closely monitored because they are at increased risk for autism and other developmental problems. In addition to the evaluations at well-child visits, these children should undergo testing for language delays, learning problems, poor socialization skills, and any symptoms that might suggest they have anxiety or depression.

    When socialization, learning, or behavior problems develop in a person at any time or at any age, he or she should also be evaluated. Most experts believe that if a parent has a "hunch" the child may have autism, they should insist that the child be evaluated. Often, parents know when a child is not connecting with them, whereas a doctor may miss these cues.

    The Different Types of Autism

    Conditions that fall under the autism spectrum disorder classification include:

    • Autistic disorder. This is what most people think of when they hear the word "autism." It refers to problems with social interactions, communication, and imaginative play in children younger than age 3.
    • Asperger's syndrome. Children with Asperger's syndrome have some traits of autism, especially weak social skills and a preference for sameness and routine. But unlike those with autism, children with Asperger's syndrome usually start to talk around age 2 (the age at which speech normally develops). They have normal to above-normal intelligence.
    • Childhood disintegrative disorder. This condition resembles autism. These children develop normally for at least two years and then lose some or most of their communication and social skills.

    Rett syndrome was previously classified under ASD but has since been found to be linked to genetics instead. However, many children with Rett also have autism. Known to occur primarily in girls, children with Rett syndrome almost always occurs in girls. They begin to develop normally. Then they begin to lose start losing their communication and social skills. Head growth slows during the first months of life and a loss of purposeful hand movements occurs. Muscle movement is startling and mental retardation is typical.

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