The Mom’s Beat: Autistic children benefit from early identification (VIDEO)

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The Mom's Beat by Laura Stetser

Just five days before Autism Awareness Month began, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report indicating that autism diagnoses across the country had spiked by 30 percent more than experts had expected over a two-year period.

According to the report, one in 64 children nationwide is being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 88 children in 2012.

And New Jersey’s figures are even higher. The state leads the country in prevalence of autism diagnoses, with one in every 45 children fitting the description.

During a media briefing March 27, Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, said the results of the study should be a call to action for earlier detection.

“More needs to be done to identify children with autism sooner. Early identification is the most powerful tool we have right now to make a difference in the lives of children with autism,” Boyle said. “Our message to parents is, if you have a concern about how your child plays, learns, speaks, acts or moves, take action, don't wait.”

One local mother I spoke with about the experience of getting her now 10-year-old son classified said that her persistence in getting him identified early on in his schooling has had a noticeable impact on his performance.

“I don’t think he would be where he is today and wouldn’t be doing so well if we hadn’t kept at it,” said the woman, who asked to be kept anonymous to preserve her child’s privacy. “But it is not easy. You have to be an advocate for your child and sometimes you have to be forceful.”

The process required her and her husband to pay for outside testing and therapy sessions, which they still do today.

To be qualified for school district services when he was entering preschool and kindergarten, they took him to an out-of-network child psychologist for more than a year before he was diagnosed and then still needed to visit a neurologist for his agreement before the school district would accept the diagnosis, she said.

According to Carli Smith, a preschool teacher in the Egg Harbor Township School District’s Autism and Multiple Disabilities Program, preschool-age children can be evaluated as early as 3 years old through the district.

“Sometimes we see that preschoolers are coming in without a diagnosis; however their parents and guardians may have noticed some red flags,” she explained. “When this happens, you can refer them to the child study team at 3 years old, and we evaluate them.  If they meet a certain criteria, they are eligible under 'preschool child with a disability.' They can always be classified later on and typically have some sort of diagnosis by age 5.”

But the reason some children are not being classified early on may not be for a lack of concern by parents, she added.

“There are definitely some students that are out there that are not classified. I believe a lot of it is just awareness of the symptoms. I don't necessarily believe it is parents not wanting a label, but just not knowing where to go for help,” she said. “I also know that getting in to see a developmental pediatrician around here is very difficult. It takes sometimes up to 6 to 12 months to get in for an appointment.”

The mother I spoke with said that parents of autistic children must be prepared to fight for their child.

“I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on the phone getting things sorted out with our insurance company, sorting out what they would pay or wouldn’t pay,” she said. “You have to be constantly following up. You have to educate yourself, and you can’t be afraid to push back.”

She said they were concerned about their son when they noticed a speech delay first, but he also showed challenges with socialization and a strong need for closely followed routines.

“We had to set hard routines and prepare him for what was coming next,” she said. “He brought the same trains to bed each night, and if he didn’t have one of them, he would flip out. He’d have a huge tantrum. It would be extremely upsetting for him.”

While the symptoms of autism can vary widely from child to child, Smith said following signs can indicate autism:

The child has a difficult time communicating. He or she may have trouble articulating wants and needs, using verbal or nonverbal expressions like pointing, or guiding adult to a certain item;

The child may have many words but have a difficult time engaging in conversation, or the child has a large vocabulary but chooses to speak only about preferred topics;

The child does not respond to his or her name or shows a lack of eye contact;

The child shows a lack of interest in peers. The child may have not be interested in participating in cooperative play with classmates. At this age they may also have a difficult time participating in pretend play like dress-up and acting out stories;

The child is rigid in terms of schedule or daily routine. For instance, changing the child's typical routine could cause frustration, or having a different kind of juice box at snack time may throw off their entire day;

The child has trouble transitioning from preferred to nonpreferred activities;

The child displays repetitive behaviors. For example, a child may perseverate on the same toy or movie, or engage in repetitive behavior such as flapping his or her arms or rocking in a chair.

Looking for more information? There are resources through local support groups and organizations like the Arc of Atlantic County (see video above), as well as at the CDC’s website, which offers a free milestone checklist HERE.

Laura Stetser is a full-time reporter and mother of two school-age children. Connect with her via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @TheMomsBeat.

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