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Finding autism early: 6 important questions about your toddler

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  April 25, 2013 05:00 AM

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April is Autism Awareness Month--and if there's anything that we need when it comes to autism, it's awareness. We need people to be aware of this condition that affects a staggering 1 in 50 children, so that we can understand what causes it, and find ways to prevent it. And we need people to be aware of the signs of autism--because getting help early can make a real difference.

toddler pic.jpg
Many children aren't diagnosed with autism until they get to preschool, or sometimes even later--and that means important time is lost. The signs of autism can be present in toddlers--and when we find it then, we can get help to those children and their families right away. The trick is in asking the right questions--and acting on the answers.

In the practice where I work, as in many other practices, we ask parents to fill out questionnaires about the behavior and development of their children. At the 18 month and 24 month visits, we ask parents to fill out one called the MCHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers)--that's the tool we've chosen to help us look for autism. It's a list of questions that parents answer yes or no to, questions about how their child acts, plays and interacts with other people.

While all the questions on the MCHAT are important, there are six that are most important:
  • Does your child take an interest in other children?
  • Does your child ever use his finger to point at or ask for something?
  • Does your child ever bring objects over to you to show you something?
  • Does your child imitate you?
  • Does your child respond to his name when you call?
  • If you point at a toy across the room, does your child look at it?
If parents answer no to these questions, that's when we get most worried that the child might have autism.

Now, there can be other reasons why the answer might be no, like hearing loss, vision problems or learning problems. We would never make a diagnosis just based on a questionnaire. We would ask many more questions, do a careful examination of the child and make an appointment for the child and family to be seen by someone who specializes in autism, like a neurologist, psychologist or developmental pediatrician.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some great resources to help families and caregivers pick up on early signs of autism. Their Learn the Signs, Act Early campaign has lists of milestones for children 2 months to 5 years, so that parents can track their child's development--and know when there might be a problem.

That's what it's all about, really: being watchful, and asking for help. 

So ask those questions about your toddler. If the answer to any of them is no, talk to your doctor. It may be nothing--and if it's nothing, you and your doctor will figure that out. But if it's something...the earlier you speak up, the earlier your child will get the help he needs.

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Leave me a message on my Facebook page--and "like" the page for links to all my MD Mama blogs as well as my blogs on Thriving and Huffington Post.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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