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Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders)
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Screening and diagnosis

Your child's doctor will look for signs of developmental delays at regular checkups. If your child shows some signs of autism, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in treating children with autism. This specialist, working with a team of professionals, can perform a formal evaluation for the disorder.

Because autism varies widely in severity and signs, making a diagnosis may be difficult. There isn't a medical test to pinpoint the disorder. Instead, a formal evaluation consists of observing your child and talking to you about how your child's social skills, language skills and behavior have changed over time. To help reach a diagnosis, your child may undergo a number of developmental tests covering speech, language and psychological issues.

Although the signs of autism often appear by 18 months, formal diagnosis usually isn't made until age 2 or 3, when there may be more obvious delays in language development. Early diagnosis is important, because early intervention — preferably before age 2 1/2 or 3 — seems to be associated with the best chance for significant improvement.


There's no cure for autism, and there's no "one-size-fits-all" treatment. In fact, the range of home-based and school-based treatments and interventions for autism can be overwhelming. Your doctor can help identify resources in your area that may work for your child. Treatment options may include:

  • Behavioral and communication therapies. Many programs have been developed to address the range of social, language and behavioral difficulties associated with autism. Some programs focus on reducing problem behaviors and teaching new skills. Other programs focus on teaching children how to act in social situations or how to communicate better with other people.

  • Drug therapies. Some medications may improve specific behaviors, such as hyperactivity. Right now, there are no medications that seem to directly improve the core signs of autism. Your doctor likely won't prescribe medication for your child unless your child's behavior is potentially dangerous or it interferes with his or her ability to participate in educational programs.

  • Complementary approaches. Some parents choose to supplement educational and medical intervention with complementary therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy, special diets, vitamin and mineral supplements, and sensory integration — which focuses on reducing a child's hypersensitivity to touch or sound. Discuss these therapies with your child's doctor or psychologist before including them in an overall treatment plan.

Children with autism seem to respond well to highly structured, specialized education programs that are tailored to meet their needs. Successful programs often incorporate a team of specialists and a variety of interventions to improve social skills, communication and behavior.

Your child won't "outgrow" autism. But he or she can learn to function within the confines of his or her disability, especially if treatment begins early. Preschool children who receive intensive, individualized behavioral interventions show good progress.

Coping skills

Researchers are hunting for clues to the cause of autism, in the hopes that better understanding of the disorder will lead to better treatments. The future looks bright, but that doesn't necessarily help families who face the challenge of living with autism today.

Raising a child with autism can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining. These ideas may help:

  • Find a team of trusted professionals. You'll need to make important decisions about your child's education and treatment. Find a team of teachers and therapists who can help evaluate the options in your area and explain the federal regulations regarding children with disabilities. Make sure this team includes a case manager or service coordinator, who can help access financial services and government programs.

  • Take time for yourself and other family members. Caring for a child with autism can be a round-the-clock job that puts stress on your marriage and your whole family. To avoid burnout, take time out to relax, exercise or enjoy your favorite activities. Try to schedule one-on-one time with your other children and plan date nights with your spouse — even if it's just watching a movie together after the children go to bed.

  • Seek out other families of autistic children. Other families struggling with the challenges of autism can be a source of useful advice. Many communities have support groups for parents and siblings of children with autism.

  • Learn about the disorder. There are many myths and misconceptions about autism. Learning the truth can help you better understand your child and his or her attempts to communicate. With time, you'll likely be rewarded by seeing your child grow and learn and even show affection — in his or her own way.


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