Early Signs of Autism: How & Why Early Diagnosis Matters
Autism spectrum disorder is often thought of as a behavioral and mental health issue. This traditional approach, in one end, helps to identify a wide spectrum of behaviors.
On the other end, it is an oversimplification of the many differences in the neurological presentation of children in the autistic spectrum
It leads to the need to consider autism as a chronic medical condition, a disease of disordered biochemistry and metabolism that affects multiple organ systems. It is treatable.
That’s why I take a biomedical approach to diagnose and treat autism. One thing both of these approaches share is the importance of early diagnosis and intervention.
What do symptoms of autism look like for young children?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of autism diagnosis is around four years; is that soon enough?
The earlier the diagnosis and use of early intervention services, the greater chance to aid the child’s development and address the many other medical issues involved. Early signs of autism can begin almost immediately after birth and are detectable far earlier than some may think.
Parents can help by using screening tools, cataloging milestones, and maintaining good communication with the child’s health care provider.
But even these important screening tools are limited outside of recognizing the developmental signs of autism.
Instead of creating a plan for getting to the root causes of autism, traditional screening tools focus more on describing behaviors. Those behaviors are symptoms of a disordered biochemistry and metabolism. I believe in identifying treatable markers of the imbalanced biochemistry and metabolism of children with autism.
There are warning signs cause for increased vigilance as you gather a good family medical history and observe your child’s health and behavior over the first few years of life:
- Family history of autoimmune disorders, allergies, and early heart attacks
- Pregnancy history of thimerosal exposure, Rhogam exposure, or removal of dental amalgam during pregnancy
- Birth history of Caesarean delivery (C-section) or antibiotic use
- Male gender (boys develop autism at a significantly higher rate than girls)
Recognizing red flags early in a child’s life can make a huge difference in treatment outcomes. Sooner than ever before, we can catch early signs of autism in young children and see better results long-term. Read on to find out:
- What the early signs of autism are
- How to spot them
- Why they’re so important
- Diagnostic tests that I use
Early Signs of Autism
If I could say one thing to parents, I’d tell them to be vigilant early in their child’s life for significant delays in their development. It’s important to diagnose autism as soon as we can in order to start treatment as early as possible.
The brain growth of children with ASD looks different as early as six months old. Knowing early warning signs helps you help your child. These can be broken up by both age and symptom type — here’s my list of what to look for.
Surprising as it may be, there are indicators of autism that present before a child’s first birthday. One study found that decreased activity levels, trouble with visual focus, and lack of interest in social interactions were already present in children under a year old with ASD. Children should also babble, make facial expressions, and point by the end of their first year.
In newborns, lack of social smiling by six months of age is another common symptom. However, it can be difficult to discern early signs of autism in newborn babies this young.
As your newborn grows, pay attention to the size of the head. An unusually large head is common in children with autism.
Be sure your baby is screened for developmental delays at their nine and twelve month checkups. Don’t be afraid to report any concerns you may have to your pediatrician at any point.
Remember: You, as parents, know your child best. If you feel something is “off,” continue to seek an answer. You should never be ashamed of advocating for your child’s health.
By two years, children should begin using single word communication in addition to babbling. This is also when focus may become more pronounced. Seldom making eye contact and not engaging in shared interests are other early signs of autism.
By the end of their second year, toddlers should be using two-word phrases, such as bye-bye. These should be employed of their own accord, not just repeated or imitated.
If you notice any of these symptoms of autism or developmental delays in your child, speak to your pediatrician. Keep in mind that diagnostic tools are available. The M-Chat, a checklist for early signs of autism, is an excellent starting point for parents.
By Symptom Type
Early Behavioral Impairments
As early as 1999, studies suggested that specific movements could indicate ASD in babies before age three. While no child moves and develops identically, difficulty rolling over and sitting up, as well as asymmetrical crawling and walking can be early markers of autism.
Hand flapping, repetitive behaviors, and difficulty with changes to their routine are also common indicators. You might notice vision issues, manifested in frequent “sideways glances”.
Other signs can be over- or under-sensitivity to smells, loud noises, sights, and touch. A lack of interest in their environment or intense fixations can also lead young children with autism to behave differently, like throwing tantrums when they didn’t in the past. This is often due to the chronic anxiety children with autism typically experience.
Finally, being unresponsive to pain or looking at objects from different angles are abnormal in child development.
Early Social Impairments
Beyond the social differences previously discussed, children with ASD may display a lack of empathy for others and difficulty making friends, which may present in toddler years. They also may not show objects of interest to parents, uninterested in sharing them. Similarly, they may not look even if parents are trying to call their attention to something.
It’s also difficult for young children with ASD to perceive the emotions and reactions of others. Facial expressions and body language are tough for them to read, as they struggle to perceive the emotions and reactions of others. Similarly, they may have difficulties in responding to these expressions, like smiling or peek-a-boo.
Early Communication Impairments
Children with autism often do not point or communicate needs similarly to their peers. Communication may take forms like echoing words without understanding their meaning, called echolalia. Children may be disinterested in starting or continuing conversations. This difficulty understanding and delayed speech and language skills are common red flags.
Being unresponsive to names, but responding to noises, is another typical symptom. However, one of the clearest signals is regression. This refers to losing social skills or communication abilities, and should always be followed up on with a health care provider. Typically, this will occur between 15 and 24 months.
Why Early Diagnosis is Key to Autism Management
Recognizing signs of autism spectrum disorder early can allow parents to partner with their doctor and treat the child holistically and nutritionally.
Autism Diagnosis: A Biomedical Approach
I believe treating in a functional, holistic way produces the best outcome for ASD cases. A successful outcome requires close collaboration with parents, caregivers, and teachers. Empowered parents regularly attend support groups, go to conferences to learn more about what they can do, and educate themselves through books.
What’s the best part of this empowerment? Children whose autism was caught early and received intervention are more likely to go off the spectrum later in life.
Diagnosing autism isn’t just a checklist, though. There are many factors that may be contributing to behavioral issues, and many factors to examine.
My focus is on individuality — every autistic child is different, and an integrative approach will be individualized to their specific needs.
The two fundamental questions guiding my approach are the following:
- Is there something the child should receive for which he/she has an unmet need?
- Is there something the child should avoid or get rid of because it is toxic or causing allergic responses?
With these in mind, these are the steps I take to determine an autism diagnosis.
I use a questionnaire that helps create a broad view of every factor that may play into a diagnosis of ASD. Although this is used for children with ASD, it also includes those who may have been assessed for ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder.
The questionnaire asks about:
- Which early signs of autism a parent noticed first
- Developmental delays or issues a child is currently facing
- Chronic health issues (like GI concerns, thyroid issues, eczema, asthma, etc.)
- Precipitating events to symptoms, like seizure or illness
- Details on digestive health, which is a major concern for most people with ASD
- Home environment
- Mother’s pregnancy/labor experiences and medical history
- Family medical history
- Vaccinations, medications, and supplements received
- Dietary habits
- Biomedical therapies already in place
Answers to these questions help give me (and similar practitioners) a great starting place for a comprehensive approach to addressing autism symptoms.
After receiving answers to my targeted questionnaire, I spend time with the child and the family to make direct observation of behaviors, language skills and social interactions. Clarification on the provided answers and creating a detailed timeline is part of my assessment.
The next step is to recommend a specific lab panel to test for genetics and biochemical and metabolic imbalances to look for treatable causes of ASD. I find a holistic approach doesn’t just look at behaviors, but also at overall physical health to give a full picture of what’s happening in each individual case.
These diagnostic tests are helpful since they can give indications of treatable imbalances even before age one and before behavioral symptoms typically appear.
First, I conduct a genetic test to test for issues with detoxification and methylation. Deficiencies in these processes are classic issues for children with autism.
The panel tests several factors that can indicate the presence of ASD. This includes an advanced cholesterol profile, since there is a proposed link between low cholesterol levels and ASD. I examine immunological markers and vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can play into the development of autism. This can help determine an individualized vitamin and supplement recommendation.
Next up, an Organic Acids test helps identify candida and clostridia overgrowth, oxalate excess, neurotransmitter status and mitochondrial function.
The peptide analysis for gluten and casein metabolites added to the IgG Food sensitivity panel and the IgE food and environmental allergy panel help to personalize the special nutritional diet plan the child needs.
It also offers a comprehensive stool analysis, which is a great indicator of potential malabsorption and digestive issues that are prevalent in individuals with ASD. Specifically, we’re looking for pathogens and the microbiome composition to make a functional assessment on infection, digestion, inflammation, and immune function.
The diagnostics also test for glyphosate, a pesticide linked to autism and issues in the gut-brain axis. The GPL-TOX Profile helps screen for 172 non-metal pollutants known to disrupt the endocrine systems of children with autism.
The Metals Hair Test looks for the levels of heavy metals that can cause developmental damage and can contribute to the development of autism while depleting essential minerals.
Finally, the Phospholipase A2 Activity Test looks for elevated levels of this compound, which are linked to ASD.
Are you seeing how this test panel can provide a complete picture of what’s affecting your child and aid in diagnosis before more symptoms emerge?
- There are many resources available for families dealing with early signs of autism, from conferences to books to support groups.
- Symptoms can become evident as early as six months old, so the more informed parents can be, the better.
- These visible symptoms can include impaired communication, social skills, and behavior, and certain missed developmental milestones can be early signs of autism.
- Catching ASD early leads to better results, and a biomedical approach to diagnostics can help treat the issue in more ways than one. It gives hope to bring your child toward a healthy and functional life.
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