Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, according to the Autism Society, and caregivers should know what to look for in their children. Dr. Tisa Johnson, medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, says early diagnosis is important. “When kids are diagnosed early with autism, they can take advantage of evidence-based services that we know can change the trajectory of their diagnosis,” she says. This is especially important for parents of African American children, because disparities exist in the early detection and treatment of autism.
Johnson guides us through some questions caregivers should ask as their child matures from infancy. Three areas of a child’s development are usually affected by autism: social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and inflexible behavior. Johnson’s recommendation to parents: “Regardless of where they get care for their child – whether it is a pediatrician or a family medicine doctor – if their provider is not doing standard screening at 18 and 24 months, I would empower them to ask for it. Because it really should be done.”
How do they engage?
Johnson advises paying attention to shared or joint attention, which is the ability to coordinate focus on an object with another person. This is an important step in nonverbal communication and socialization. If you ask your child to focus on a ball that you’re also focusing on, can they join? Also note if the child follows a pointed finger and whether the child is waving, pointing, gesturing or avoiding eye contact.
How do they communicate?
By 12 months old, children typically will say one or two words. Johnson says even if they haven’t said a meaningful word, they should be making some communicative sounds, and their jargon should have some inflection. Caregivers should also pay attention to whether the baby makes sounds directed toward an object or person, or if they make them into space. Making sounds is important, but they should also be using them socially.
How are they playing?
Johnson says to observe how long the child plays with a toy – is there an excessive interest? Is there repetitive movement such as lining them up at a frequency or intensity that is restrictive? As they age, are they pretending or imitating as part of play? Also notice whether they are sharing and showing their toys. Children’s play time should be functional.
A Few helpful resources:
The Color of Autism Foundation empowers Black families to identify the warning signs of autism and seek proper care. Attend Spectrum of Care, a free virtual program facilitated by professionals who provide guidance on becoming your child’s best advocate.
Autism Alliance of Michigan offers the Navigator program, a one-stop resource that connects families to resources and provides a team of specialists to answer questions. The program aims to help families navigate and overcome barriers to accessing care and support.
Caliber Autism Care has social skills programs for children and adolescents diagnosed with autism, from the time of diagnosis through adulthood. Services are home-based, covering Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.
Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network allows eligible families to use the Michigan Medicaid Autism Benefit for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services for those with a diagnosis, from birth through age 20.
The Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities provides comprehensive diagnostic evaluation, and evidence-based and accessible ABA therapy.