Autism spectrum disorder or ASD (previously referred to as autism, pervasive development disorder and Asperger syndrome) is a complex group of neurological and development disorders estimated to affect around 1 to 2% of children globally.
The incidence in South Africa is thought to be the same, according to Professor Petrus de Vries, director of the Centre for Autism Research in Africa. But in many cases ASD is only diagnosed once children start school. This is unfortunate, as the earlier it is detected, the sooner interventions can be started, while the child’s brain development is at its most receptive.
Although there is no cure for ASD, early and consistent therapy and loving care can help children live full and happy lives, says Sandy Klopper, director of Autism South Africa. Watch your little one for the signs below, especially if you already have a child with autism, as there is thought to be a genetic component to ASD.
Possible signs of ASD to look out for by 12 months:
- Baby is not babbling while looking at you
- No interacting – playing peek-a-boo, etc
- No pointing to ask for things, or following others’ pointed fingers with their gaze
- No sign of gestures – baby does not reach out to be picked up, no waving, nor shaking their head to signal “no”
- No or few smiles or laughs.
- Your child does not mimic actions or sounds (clapping etc.)
- No response to their name when called
- Delayed language or other milestones
- Repetitive actions such as flapping hands or constantly spinning a wheel on a toy car
- Playing with only a few toys or just part of them (like the wheels)
- Paying more attention to things than to people
Possible signs of ASD to look out for between 18 and 24 months:
If your child starts losing words, skills or the ability to connect with others, this is another early sign in around 20% to 50% of cases of children with ASD, says Klopper.
There is no formal medical test to diagnose ASD – health professionals rely on observing the child’s behaviour for the signs and symptoms above. If you detect any, or have other reasons to suspect a problem, trust your intuition and have your child checked by a paediatrician. They may suggest an assessment by a hearing or speech specialist to rule out other problems; and if your child has ASD, you will be referred to specialists or support groups.
Never simply “wait and see” – you could be losing valuable time in helping your child towards a better future. (See Tips for parenting a child with autism.)
For more information on ASD, go to the Autism SA website.
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