April is Autism Awareness Month and you may have noticed there’s a lot in the news about autism. Several TV shows now feature lead characters with autism (Atypical, The Good Doctor and Big Bang Theory, among others). Even Sesame Street has a character, Julia, who has autism. More and more children — up to one out of 68 — are being diagnosed with autism. But what exactly is this condition, how does it affect children and what can you do to help?
What is autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex disorder of very early brain development that is approximately four times more common in boys than girls.
Autism spectrum disorder was previously recognized as several separate disorders — including autistic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Asperger’s disorder. Based on their shared symptoms, these disorders were merged under a single ASD diagnosis in 2013.
What are the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder?
Different children can be affected in very different ways, but they share two main categories of symptoms:
- difficulty with social communication and social interactions
- repetitive behaviors and restricted or unusual interests, including sensory symptoms such as heightened sensitivity to noise, touch or smell
I think my child might have autism. What should I do?
Autism is currently diagnosed through close observation of a child’s symptoms and development.
Babies and toddlers should be screened for ASD and other developmental issues at their regular check-ups with their pediatrician. But if you suspect your child may have ASD, or you have any concerns about your child’s behavior or development at any age, don’t wait for a check-up. Talk with your doctor. Trust your instincts.
How can I help my child with autism?
All children with autism need appropriate educational and behavioral therapy. In fact, this is the main treatment for autism. Young children receive services from the Early Intervention (EI) program, and, after age 3, from their school system. Intensive behavioral therapy can be provided at school and in the home. Other therapies include speech therapy, occupational therapy and social skills training. Some children also need medication to help with certain symptoms like trouble focusing or aggressive behavior. In most situations, behavior therapy is the best way to help with behaviors.
There are also many things you can do yourself. Most important is keeping a healthy lifestyle with consistent routines, the same things that help all children. Here are a few of our recommendations for families:
- Maintain a consistent routine, both at home and at school.
- Offer meals and snacks at around the same time each day.
- Follow a structured bedtime routine that quiets the mood, including lowering the lights, limiting screen time and doing calming activities.
- Talk to your child’s teachers and therapists to learn how you can use the strategies at home that they use at school.
- View any movies, TV and YouTube videos together with your child. Learn how to use media as a teaching tool for social skills.
- Prepare your child before outings and special events, so he or she knows what to expect. Use pictures and role play to explain what’s going to happen. This works for medical visits too, and The Autism Spectrum Center at Boston’s Children’s Hospital has stories to help.
- Try to stay calm if something unexpected happens, because children can usually pick up on a parent’s anxiety.
Challenges are part of parenting any child. If your child has ASD, you may find yourself facing some especially tough challenges. Keeping a routine and a regular schedule of therapy is helpful, but it can be exhausting. It’s perfectly OK to take breaks from therapy-related activities and let your child pick what to do in his or her free time.
And make sure to reach out to your provider if you need help getting support for you or your child, including counseling, behavioral services, respite, information about special needs recreation and mentoring.
How can I learn more about autism research?
There are currently many research studies about different aspects of autism going on at Boston Children’s Hospital, including using saliva to determine what genes might be involved, using MRI to see how the brain is structured, using EEG or transcranial magnetic stimulation to determine how the brain functions, and using behavioral tests in toddlers with ASD to see if we can predict how the brain will change over time. We’re even testing new medications for treating the social communication deficits in some children with ASD.
The goal of our research is to improve the lives of children and families affected by ASD. If you have a child with ASD, consider signing up for our research registry to learn about new studies your child might be eligible for. You can also find a list of currently recruiting studies on our ASC website. Please check back often as these are frequently updated.
Learn more about the Autism Spectrum Center at Boston Children’s.