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    Autism: Knowing the Signs and the Importance of Early Intervention

    Brandi Neely, Pediatric Nurse Practitioner Pediatric Nurse Practitioner 04/01/2021

    Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability.  Many people don’t understand autism and the importance of recognizing signs and symptoms in young children so they can get the early help they need. 

    Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means that those with the disorder may have more mild symptoms that can be managed and allow the individual to have a fairly normal life, or someone may be severely affected and require extensive lifelong care.

    Autism Signs and Symptoms
    Children with autism have trouble with social and communication skills. Most often this includes social interactions, language, and behavior, including repeating a behavior over and over. Autism appears in the first 3 years of life, although it is sometimes diagnosed much later.


    • Cannot start or keep a social conversation going
    • Develops language slowly or not at all
    • Repeats words or memorized passages, like commercials, but does not understand them
    • Does not refer to self correctly, for example, says "you want water" when the child means "I want water"
    • Uses nonsense rhyming
    • Uses gestures instead of words
    • Social interaction
    • Does not seem aware of others' feelings
    • Is withdrawn
    • Prefers to spend time alone, rather than with others
    • May not respond to eye contact or smiles
    • May avoid eye contact
    • Does not like to be held
    • Does not respond to their name


    • Repeats body movements
    • May find normal noises painful and hold hands over ears
    • May be sensitive to light
    • May find even slight touch to be overstimulating
    • Rubs surfaces, mouths or licks objects
    • Does not like even the smallest changes in routine; needs everything to be the same
    • "Acts up" with intense tantrums

    When Symptoms Occur vs. Age of Diagnosis

    Below is information about what age(s) parents and caregivers may start to notice signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Initial signs and symptoms typically are apparent in the early developmental period. Some parents report some concerning behaviors as early as 6 months of age, but autism can be diagnosed as early as 2 years.

    The average age that parents begin to express concerns to their pediatricians is 17 months but the average age of diagnosis is significantly later, often as late as 4 years or older.

    Social deficits and behavioral patterns might not be recognized as symptoms of ASD until a child is unable to meet social, educational, occupational or other important life stage demands, such as when entering preschool or even kindergarten.

    How to Get Help
    The first step to take if you see some or many of these symptoms in your young child should be to talk with your child’s doctor (family medicine physician or pediatrician) about your concerns.  He or she may do an initial screening and some basic observations and testing.  From there, the doctor may decide to refer you/your child to a specialized clinic/service that works with autistic children, and can provide an official diagnosis.

    Here at Deaconess, we offer this diagnostic service at Deaconess Riley Children’s Specialty Center, in the area of Developmental Pediatrics. The Deaconess team meets with families and the child with the development concerns and will use a few different tools to help identify the presence of developmental delays and differences that can indicate autism.

    It is important to note that a referral is NOT needed to have an assessment at Deaconess Riley Children’s Specialty Center. For more information, including contact phone numbers, see below.
    Importance of Early Intervention
    Early detection of ASD, followed by early intervention, can lead to substantially better futures for autistic children and their families. Autism has no cure, but early and aggressive intervention may help parents and children learn to manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Early intervention often includes therapy for speech, coordination, socialization, and working on decreasing repetitive behaviors.

    A child who receives early intervention is far more likely to do well in school, to develop meaningful friendships, and to grow up to live a typical lifestyle of working, social relationships and family. It’s also crucial to note that if and when a child is diagnosed with ASD, this often opens many doors for programs, social services and educational services that will be free for the child.

    In summary
    If you are concerned about your child, you can contact Deaconess Riley Children’s Specialty Center.  Also included on this page is information about an ASD support group for parents and a safety checklist for parents/caregivers of autistic children.


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