Parents who fear child may have autism urged to be pushy as early treatment ‘crucial’

Children who are identified early and get help have the best chance for reaching their potential, say expertsAt 18 months, Cristina Astacio spoke only a few words, wouldn’t respond to her name and shunned other children in her day care group. Last October, her worried parents found out why.She has a mild form of autism, a diagnosis being given to more U.S. children than ever before, largely because of more awareness and better diagnosis.

According to new government statistics, the rate is now around one in 88. That means autism is nearly twice as common as the government reported just five years ago. The largest increases are in Hispanic children like Cristina.

The definition of autism has changed over the years and Cristina might not have been considered autistic two decades ago. But experts say children like her are lucky, because her parents recognised early that something was wrong.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued yesterday found that 40 per cent of U.S children weren’t diagnosed until after age four.

Evidence shows that children who are identified early and get help have the best chance for reaching their potential, said CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends autism screening for all children at age 18 months and two years.

Diagnosing the developmental disorder relies on observing behavior.

Autism can’t be cured, but treatment including intensive behavior therapy can help many youngsters to function more easily.
The academy’s Dr Susan Hyman

said many children who aren’t making eye contact and aren’t talking ‘may have autism, but they may have other things.’

She said it’s important for parents to be persistent about their concerns with their doctor so their children can be evaluated.

Kristy Batesole, of Atascadero, California, says she suspected something was wrong with her son, Keegan, even when he was a hard-to-calm overly fussy baby.

He learned words, but by age two stopped talking, would spend hours opening and closing doors and sometimes bang his head on the ground.

Though he started getting special help in preschool in Nevada, he wasn’t formally diagnosed with autism until last year, at age 6, after the family moved to California, where there are more autism specialists.

Melissa Miller, from St Petersburg, Florida, whose daughter Chelsea, was diagnosed last year at age two, said many people still misunderstand the disorder.

‘I think many people hear “autism” and think “Rain Man,”‘ she said, referring to the 1988 movie featuring Dustin Hoffman as the mathematically brilliant but socially impaired autistic man.

‘The autism spectrum is so vast, and all of our children are different. Many of them don’t rock back and forth or have savant skills. They are sweet, affectionate, intelligent, goofy – and exhausting – kids,’ Miller said.

Cristina Astacio gets two hours of behavior therapy six days a week. Her mother, Charisse, says the little girl now responds to commands and speaks around 50 words.

The most special are two words Cristina never said before.

‘Now she says “mommy” and “daddy,”‘ Astacio said.

‘It’s wonderful.’

Christina’s father, Christopher, is a special-education teacher in New York; most of the kids in his class are Hispanic and many have autism.

‘I remember back in the past, a few kids here and there had autism, not like the way it is now,’ Astacio said.

‘I’m really curious why so many kids are being diagnosed.’

Experts, including CDC researchers, think broader screening and better diagnosis have largely contributed to that. But autism’s cause remains a mystery, and government researchers are seeking answers.

CDC officials say research into causes of autism will help determine if there’s been a true increase in numbers.

Genetics is believed to play a role. Studies have found no connection with childhood vaccines, but other factors under investigation include mothers’ illnesses or medication during pregnancy.

Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for the advocacy group Autism Speaks, said the new figures indicate ‘a public health emergency that demands immediate attention.’

Her group estimates that U.S. autism costs total $126 billion each year, including costs related to diagnosis and treatment. That estimate also includes treatment for severely affected adults and lost wages.