Trust Your Intuition: Early Signs of Autism

By Dr. Erin Walton-Doyle, an Internal Medicine and Pediatrics physician with St. Joe’s Medical Group and St. Mary Mercy Livonia

Parents often tell me about a feeling or gut instinct they have about their child. Sometimes it’s a sense their child has an ear infection, other times it’s a premonition their child is in danger.

I tell parents to trust that intuition not only when it comes to a common cold but with concerns about developmental delays. Asking questions or sharing a concern about your child’s behavior is important in order to get a diagnosis and start treatment, if necessary, as soon as possible.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a serious developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact with others. More than 200,000 cases of autism are diagnosed in the United States each year. While there is no cure, autism can be treated to help reduce symptoms and provide developmental support. The key is early diagnosis and intervention.

Autism can be recognized at a young age – even before a child begins speaking. If a child has autism, parents may notice the child struggling with communication challenges, limited social interactions or repetitive behaviors. Although every child is different, the following behaviors may be present:

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Does not respond to a smile or other facial expression
  • Does not look toward the direction in which someone is pointing
  • Facial expressions are different than what would be expected for a given situation
  • Unable to perceive what others are thinking or feeling by looking at facial expressions
  • Lack of concern or empathy for others
  • Lack of interest in making friends
  • Has not spoken a word by 16 months
  • Repeats what others say without understanding the meaning
  • Does not respond to his or her name but responds to specific sounds
  • Mixed pronouns, such as referring to him or herself as you and others as I
  • Lack of interest in communicating
  • Does not start or continue a conversation
  • Does not use toys or other objects to represent people or real life in play
  • Good memory of numbers, letters, songs or a specific topic
  • Rocks, spins, sways, twirls fingers, walks on toes for a long time, or flaps hands
  • Insistent on routine, order and rituals
  • Extremely frustrated and angry with change
  • Obsessed with a few or unusual activities and does them repeatedly
  • Plays with parts of toys instead of the whole toy (wheels of a truck)
  • Sensitive to smells, sounds, lights, textures or touch
  • Unusual vision or gaze
  • Challenging bowel control
  • Sleep disturbances

Parents who notice some of these behaviors in their child should trust their instincts. If you have a concern about the way your child plays, learns, speaks, moves or interacts, talk to your pediatrician. You are an advocate for your child and you know your child better than anyone. If you have a concern, trust your instinct. It is better to ask questions and begin a dialogue with your pediatrician now.  Autism can be diagnosed before the age of two and there are resources available to help your child progress developmentally. While it might be concerning to hear the diagnosis that your child has developmental challenges, knowing the diagnosis and how you can help will give your child the best possible outcome.

This article was written by Erin Walton-Doyle, M.D., an Internal Medicine and Pediatrics physician with St. Joe’s Medical Group and St. Mary Mercy Livonia. Dr. Doyle specializes in pediatric primary care and has a special interest and experience with children with developmental disabilities. She has a medical degree from Michigan State University College of Human Medicine and completed a residency at Wayne State University/Detroit Medical Center. Dr. Doyle is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Pediatrics. Dr. Doyle can be reached at 734-655-8200.

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