Frequently I am asked how I was able to detect my son’s autism at such an early age of 12 months. Before I elaborate on the specific markers that I had noticed, I do want to emphasize that autism is a spectrum disorder. While some children may exhibit similar signs, there is no cookie-cutter profile that represents an autism diagnosis. Also, other children may exhibit more noticeable behaviors earlier than other children or experience regression (usually between age 15-30 months) where a “typically” developing child may start to lose skills in language, motor, or social development. Particularly in highly functioning autism, the symptoms may be so subtle that a diagnosis may not occur until later in life (I have read stories of adults being evaluated and diagnosed) My story being diagnosed autism as adult.
A week after my son’s first birthday, I conducted an internet search concerning “infant” and “fascination with hands.” One of his favorite pastimes was to stare intently at his hands and flap his hands in front of his face. The behavior happened frequently and I was hoping Google had the answers. The Google search produced several hits pertaining to “Autism Symptoms and Early Signs,” specifically this one: Helpguide’s Autism Signs in Toddlers/Infants And so I started down the checklist.
- Lack of Gestures. He didn’t point or wave goodbye.
- Eye Contact. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly wasn’t great either. And when I called his name, he looked occasionally. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I could attribute that to autism or an oblivious infant.
- Lack of Imitation. He didn’t imitate clapping, waving, smiling, or banging objects together.
- Repetitive, Self Stimulatory Behavior. This one really hit home. SPINNING. My heart dropped to the floor when I read this one. Spinning toys (mostly wheels) was HIS thing. Moving the hands and fingers in front of his face. Staring at lights—he could be entertained for hours (if we let him) with play gyms or toys that featured lights.
I had read enough at that point. And I knew.
Now I can reflect further back before his 1 year birthday and realize the other behaviors that would have flagged autism spectrum disorder. First, I had an advantage that many other parents do not. He is a twin. I had a constant developmental comparison tool, and I certainly took notice of the differences. Of course I acknowledged that they are individual people that possessed different personalities and strengths, but I was having a hard time ignoring the widening gap of skills.
When I look back in his baby book, I had documented about how he had been such an easy, content baby. He could entertain himself and would typically prefer to be left alone rather than engaged. As a parent, if your child cries your instinct is to pick them up and comfort them. Not my son. He was more happy if you put him back down in his crib or play-gym.
We had a Johnny Jumper attached to a door. My son would sit in his baby walker and push the jumper into the air, and watch it swing back and forth like a pendulum. After 20 minutes, I would move him along to another activity. Repetitive, self stimulatory behavior.
I had even made a remark to my pediatrician prior to his first birthday about my mild concern I had with his lack of imitation skills and how I thought it may be a sign of autism. She dismissed me and informed me that she would conduct a more thorough analysis at the 18 month check-up.
I know I have stressed this before, but PLEASE parents, trust your instincts. Doctors see your children for 15 minutes, and I am assured that they think most parents may be overreacting because their child isn’t following the textbook developmental milestones. Most pediatricians aren’t trained to diagnose autism, and they use the same tool that any of us can use (M-CHAT).
Also, don’t dismiss developmental milestones. “All children develop at a different pace.” If I had a bottle of wine for every time I heard this quip, I would have a sick wine cellar. Especially because I had twins. And especially because his twin is a girl. “Girls develop faster than boys.” Yes, there may be some truth to both of these statements but this does not give cause to disregard if your child is behind physically, cognitively, socially, or in language. Any delays will give you access to services (through Infants and Toddlers), and any therapy or early intervention will prove to be beneficial rather than harmful. Development isn’t a race. Milestones are set as a guide and will help any parent to assess if their child is learning and progressing, and to help steer your child in development. Developmental Milestones
My takeaway—trust your gut instinct. Even my husband thought I was overdramatizing that his markers signaled autism. Familiarize yourself on the early signs of autism in infants and toddlers. Educate yourself on developmental milestones and contact your local Infant and Toddler program if you have concerns about delays. If your child is 25% delayed in a developmental area, then they qualify for services. (Maryland Infant and Toddler Programs)
Schedule an appointment with a developmental pediatrician, who is more qualified to diagnose and treat developmental delays and behavior problems beyond just autism. Get a second opinion if you feel uncertain about a diagnosis. And please, don’t fear a label. A label allowed us to receive early intervention services that resulted in HUGE progress for my son. If you fear how others will judge you and your family because of an “autism” label or that it will stigmatize your son or daughter, then maybe you need to reevaluate your priorities. I truly think this is a form of child neglect. If you don’t advocate for your child, who do you expect will care enough to do so? Set your ego aside, and step-up to get your child the help he or she needs.