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It's Autism Awareness Month: how aware are you?

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  April 4, 2013 08:23 AM

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April is Autism Awareness Month. As a pediatrician with many patients with autism, I'm glad that we have this month--because each and every child with autism deserves the best we can offer them, and everything we do begins with awareness. aware are you? See if you know whether these statements are true or false.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 150 children has been diagnosed with autism.

False. That's what the numbers were in 2007. The most recent data shows that a stunning 1 in 50 children has this diagnosis. 

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Autism is more common in boys than girls.

True. Five times more common, to be exact.

Autism is diagnosed with a blood test.

False. While there is exciting new research about the genetics of autism that may lead to blood tests in the future, the diagnosis of autism is made by taking a careful history and doing a developmental examination--i.e. testing their language, social and other skills. It's not always an easy diagnosis to make; sometimes it can be subtle, especially when children are young, and there are other conditions (such as hearing loss, or language delays) that can be confused with autism. That's why, when autism is even a possibility, it's a good idea to have an evaluation by a someone with special training in child development, such as a developmental pediatrician, a pediatric neurologist, or a child psychologist.

You can't make the diagnosis of autism until a child is in school. 

False! Signs of autism can be seen as early as toddlerhood, at 18 months or even younger. Some of the common signs early signs are:
  • not talking, or saying very few words
  • not responding to their name by 12 months
  • not making eye contact
  • preferring to be alone, not wanting to be held
  • getting upset with any change in routine
  • not playing "pretend" with toys by 18 months
  • repetitive movements, like hand-flapping or rocking
Having one or more of these doesn't necessarily mean a child has autism, but if any of these are going on, it's important that parents talk to their doctor. Which leads me to...

If parents are worried about autism, they shouldn't wait for their doctor to say something.

Really true. Parents are the ones who are with children all the time; we doctors just get little snapshots of children and their behavior. And I know I certainly don't want to go alarming parents based on little unclear snapshots. We ask lots of questions at checkups, which helps us find problems, but we can miss things--and parents don't need to wait until checkups to let us know when something doesn't seem right. The sooner we check things out, the sooner we can either reassure you--or get your child the help he needs.

Vaccines cause autism.

False. There has been lots of research on this, including a recent study showing no link between  getting lots of vaccines and autism. Vaccines do not cause autism. People talk about thimerosal, a vaccine preservative--but not only have studies failed to find a link between thimerosal and autism, there hasn't been any thimerosal in the vaccines we routinely give to children 6 and under since 2001. 

Children with autism are alike.

Really false. There is a really wide "spectrum" when it comes to autism (that's why we call them Autism Spectrum Disorders). While they have things in common, every single child with autism is different, with different abilities and different needs.

There is no cure for autism.

Sadly, this is true. That doesn't mean, though, that there's nothing that can be done. There are lots of different treatments that can be very helpful--especially when we start early. Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a behavioral treatment that encourages positive behavior and discourages negative behavior, makes a difference for lots of kids. Having a good school program with speech and other therapies is essential, medications can be useful, and for some children, changes in diet help (parents should always talk this over with their doctor first). Support for families is really crucial, too.

It's not hard for children with autism to get the help they need.

Boy, is this false. Although children with autism are eligible for services through Early Intervention (birth to age 3) and the public schools (age 3 and older), getting the right help isn't straightforward. There are certainly some families that get it easily, but in my experience they are in the minority. It's easier if you've got lots of money and are tenacious, savvy about advocacy and know how to navigate bureaucracy, but that doesn't exactly describe most parents. It's not that people don't want to help kids with autism, it's just that there aren't enough services out there, and they are expensive--bad combo. 

So families need to ask for help early and often. Your doctor can help. Advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks and local parent support groups are a good place to turn, too--they often have practical suggestions and know the best people to contact.

To learn more about autism, visit the Autism Spectrum Disorders page of the CDC website.

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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