Elon Musk has asperger’s, he revealed this during a Saturday Night Live gig. Apparently speculation about the billionaire being on the spectrum was pretty common online. Having previously spoken about “solving” autism, his asperger’s revelation was not applauded by all—but it did encourage more open conversations about autism.
Unfortunately some of these conversations are based on ignorant views; often fueled by misrepresentations of autism in the media. Statements and questions like: “Isn’t everybody a little autistic?” are confusing and offensive to some on the spectrum.
If you take a (too) broad view of autism symptoms, it’s not a huge stretch to question every person’s social communication skills. Attributing obsessive interests and sensory issues to all is also easy, especially when most of us have only recently been let out from lockdown—from the cushioning of social isolation into a very overwhelming world.
Finding medical conditions in ordinary behavior is not uncommon, who has not been convinced of impending doom after Googling itchy feet?
Autism on the rise? Maybe
Although it appears as though the prevalence of autism is rising sharply, it is not advisable to self diagnose. Especially when it comes to children, whose development may include periods of extreme shyness and intense interests—such behaviors may be found in kids on the spectrum but also in neurotypical children.
While it is encouraging that celebrities and mainstream media are embracing neurodiversity; it will be counterproductive if wider acceptance and recognition of autism leads to the condition not receiving the serious consideration it deserves. Parents who nonchalantly refer to the neurodevelopmental condition as quirkiness—mentioning their child as possibly teetering on the edge of the spectrum–dilute much of the efforts of advocates raising awareness and resources for those whose lives are seriously impacted by autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Some experts feel the sharp rise in autism is deceiving. With awareness increasing every year in addition to an autism diagnosis being applied to a host of previously separate conditions (like pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified) a rise in autism is inevitable.
The fact, however, remains: parents do worry about their children being autistic. Fears about health and development are a normal part of parenting. Increased awareness of signs and symptoms of autism means doctors receive many more queries about lack of eye contact, delayed first words, obsessive interests, and strict adherence to routine.
More parents suspecting ASD in their young children is not a negative consequence of public awareness. Parents’ suspicions often lead to early diagnosis which facilitates early intervention. Research bestows many benefits to programs targeting deficits in communication and other challenging symptoms of autism early on.
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Being alert and aware, however, should not lead parents to try and decode every gesture and behavior of a child. Shyness and delayed speech could also just be part of a child’s personality and unique development. Obsessing over milestones, and social behavior may cause unnecessary stress and rob parents of the joy of watching their child develop.
It’s helpful to look at research and statistics when worried about autism. This may help to form a more objective opinion—even though most of us use comparisons to siblings and peers as a yardstick of typical development for our kids.
What do most parents look for when worried about autism?
A study (Ben-Sasson & Yom-Tov, 2016) characterized the symptoms mentioned by parents suspecting ASD in their children in online queries. The warning signs parents mentioned when worried about autism were analyzed with the following results noted:
- The most prevalent concern emerging from online queries related to repetitive and restricted behaviors and interests. If you want to know how this may present in a young child, the following behaviors are common examples of restricted and repetitive behavior: hand flapping, flicking fingers in front of the eye, rocking back and forth, lining up of toys or other objects, echolalia of speech, insistence on sameness, and inflexible insistence on routine (like eating the same meal every day or getting very upset if a different route is taken to school)
- The study found that the second most prevalent concern (revealed in online queries) related to language. It is normal for parents to get worried when their child’s first words are delayed, especially when other kids are talking in full sentences. While it is important to monitor when and how your child develops speech, it is helpful to keep in mind that a delay in speech is not always indicative of ASD
- A third concern from parents concerns emotional markers. Emotional markers associated with autism relate to emotional outbursts, avoidance of opportunities to socialize with others, social withdrawal and/or extreme shyness. Adults on the spectrum are able to articulate the feelings experienced during autism meltdowns and how sensory overload usually precedes a feeling of complete shutdown
In this study (Ben-Sasson & Yom-Tov, 2016) mentioned above, around 50.8% of the 195 queries were rated as high-risk for ASD by clinical experts. The rest of the queries were rated as medium-risk (30.8%) or low-risk (18.5%). These findings led the authors to conclude that healthcare workers should listen closely to parental concerns regarding ASD.
Parents may be worried when reading that over half of queries in the above study were rated as high-risk. Autism is still a feared diagnosis because of all the unknowns. The exact cause of the condition has not been found and many variables come into play (including where the individual falls on the spectrum) when it comes to quality of life.
What we do know is that many individuals on the spectrum are thriving, especially those who are accepted and celebrated for their uniqueness. When those on the spectrum are encouraged to grow through strength-based approaches, instead of being “fixed” according to neurotypical standards; and when they receive support to develop special interest into hobbies and careers, a fulfilling life is possible.
Being aware of the early signs of autism may help your child to receive appropriate intervention. Studies show that children on the spectrum with severe language delays may still acquire speech skills. In a study (Wodka et al., 2013) of children with ASD who did not acquire phrase speech before the age of four, 70% of the participants attained phrase speech and 47% achieved fluency.
Even if your worries are warranted, an autism diagnosis will not rob you of your child. The kind of life they will lead will be shaped by your acceptance, care, intervention, and love. Many adults on the spectrum are offended by the term “a person with autism”. They see themselves as an autistic person: autism is not a weight they carry “with” them, it is what makes them who they are.
Early diagnosis, early intervention
While noticing signs and symptoms of autism may cause worry for parents, the best you can do for your child is careful observation accompanied by note taking and scheduling a visit with your pediatrician as soon as possible.
It is important to note that due to the spectrum nature of autism, signs and symptoms will vary greatly. A high-functioning child on the spectrum may develop language just like neurotypical peers, a deficit in comprehension may only be apparent later on.
That being said, the evidence from parents, teachers, doctors and research suggests the following may be common early signs to take note of when worried about autism:
- Not babbling, not pointing out, or showing objects to caregivers
- Not looking, or not following when a caregiver points out something to the child
- No, or limited eye contact
- Not seeking out connection with other, or rarely laughing and smiling, also referred to as lack of shared enjoyment
- Another red flag may be the way the child engages with toys, if he/she prefers to line up toys rather than playing or a distinct preference to only play with a specific part of the toy, such as the wheels of a car. Instead of playing the child may only be interested in spinning the wheels repetitively
- Not responding to his/her name
It is important to also consider other conditions that share signs and symptoms with autism. A child with hearing difficulties may not respond to his/her name and a child who lines up toys only to play with the toys later may just like order.
After about 18 months a child who loses previously acquired skills (regression) like speech should be monitored as this is another red flag for autism.
Parenting sometimes seems like a journey between one worry and the next. Parents should never be ridiculed for their suspicions and worries. Wise doctors take parents’ concerns seriously as the best source of information and background when diagnosing a child.
Do your own research, keep a journal of behavior, and make an appointment if you see any red flags. But keep in mind that no diagnosis can steal your child. Or, according to Stacia Taucher: “We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.”
Ben-Sasson, A., & Yom-Tov, E. (2016). Online Concerns of Parents Suspecting Autism Spectrum Disorder in Their Child: Content Analysis of Signs and Automated Prediction of Risk. Journal of medical Internet research, 18(11), e300. https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.5439
Wodka, E. L., Mathy, P., & Kalb, L. (2013). Predictors of phrase and fluent speech in children with autism and severe language delay. Pediatrics, 131(4), e1128–e1134. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-2221.