Last Friday, Parade hosted a Facebook chat with Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., senior director of clinical and environmental sciences at Autism Speaks, the world’s largest autism advocacy organization. For those who couldn’t make the chat, here’s what we learned from Dr. Halladay:
Q: My friend is concerned about her 18-month old. What are the signs of autism at that age?
Dr. Halladay: You can learn more about the early signs of autism here. There is also a link to a video glossary that is helpful to see these behaviors in toddlers. The Autism Speaks website also has a new online tool that parents or caregivers can use to evaluate their child. It is called the “Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers.” The report should be taken to your health care professional to discuss.
Q: Is it possible for a child to develop normally in terms of speaking and then suddenly show signs of autism?
Dr. Halladay: There is something called autistic regression which happens in 10 to 25 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In most cases, the child seems to develop on track, and then loses skills like language and communication. Parents notice this happens around 12 to 24 months of age. That’s why it is important to make sure your doctor knows when you suspect something, anything, including loss of skills.
Q: At what age do children usually start showing signs of autism?
Dr. Halladay: Autism is normally diagnosed between 2 to 4 years of age, but some parents notice signs as early as one year! Check out the “learn the signs” page on the Autism Speaks website to learn more about the signs and symptoms of autism.
Q: My my nine-year-old autistic son folds his blankets and takes the recycling outside for his chores. I want him to do more because he is getting older but I can’t get him to because it causes behaviors. Do I make him do it?
Dr. Halladay: This can be challenging. It is hard to get any child to do chores! But incorporating skills into basic daily routines is an important part of behavioral intervention. You should talk with your behavioral therapist about ways to make the chores more appealing, and ways in which skills can be integrated into daily routines.
Q: Are there any genetic or environmental factors that could make it more likely for a child to show signs of autism?
Dr. Halladay: We know that autism is a complex genetic disorder. There are likely thousands of genes that contribute to risk. However, there are also some environmental factors that contribute to risk. These include maternal infection and certain chemical and medical exposures. It is important that pregnant women see an obstetrician soon and frequently when they are pregnant to discuss the risks with their doctor.
Q: Our family is getting ready to move across the country, and my autistic son does not respond well to change. Is there anything I can to make the transition easier for him?
Dr. Halladay: I know this is a difficult time. Autism Speaks has a resource that you can turn to on difficult transitions (like moves) called The Transition Tool Kit.
Q: I’m curious what you think of the recent study tying antidepressant use during pregnancy to autism in children. Is this something to worry about?
Dr. Halladay: This is a complicated story. The recent study shows that antidepressants are associated with autism risk. They also show that being depressed is a risk factor for autism, although not as much as being on antidepressants. If you are on antidepressants and are concerned, you should talk to your doctor about what may pose the least risk to you and your baby.
Q: How can you tell the difference between a quiet, introverted kid and a kid with autism?
Dr. Halladay: If you suspect that your child has autism, don’t wait or try to guess at a diagnosis—take him to your pediatrician or other healthcare provider right away. Only trained professionals can make a diagnosis of autism and recommend appropriate interventions.
Q: How often is autism diagnosed in adulthood?
Dr. Halladay: Unfortunately we don’t know enough about adults with autism. Most of the epidemiology studies have been done on children. However, autism is a lifelong diagnosis, so the prevalence should be the same in children as adults.
Q: Can Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) be used to help curb behaviors in a child who is nine, and was diagnosed at age three? He hasn’t had much ABA.
Dr. Halladay: Behavioral interventions can be used across the lifespan and start at any age. It is never too late. They can be used to curb challenging behaviors and bring out positive behaviors.
Q: What kind of funding would like to see regarding autism research? Where should we be putting our dollars to help the most families?
Dr. Halladay: We think about this question all the time. Unfortunately, we need more funding in all areas of research, especially in early diagnosis and intervention, understanding of risk factors, new medications and treatments, and research in adults. We spend most of our lifetime as “adults” but there is little research in this area with regard to autism.