Sunday, April 22, 2007

Autism Part 1

“Our two year-old son is a beautiful boy but we have become concerned. He still does not speak, actually, he doesn’t really look at you when you speak or appear to have any interest in what you say. We had his hearing tested by our physician and nothing appeared wrong. Our son does not initiate play with other children nor does he actually appear to have any interest in his peers. While he is a loving little boy, he does not really hug you back. Someone suggested that we have him tested for autism and we’re scared. Is he autistic? What do we do?”

Autism refers to a neuro (brain) developmental disorder that affects an estimated 1/166 to 1/500 children each year in the United States with an annual growth rate in diagnoses of 10 – 17%. Staggering statistics? Surely, but even more importantly notice the incidence of 1/166 to 1/500. Why the significant range?

I recall being horrified (as a youth) when Dalton Trumbo in Johnny Got His Gun indicted the United States government when he revealed that their own offices could not provide an accurate statistic on the number of soldiers who died in Vietnam, often missing the number by thousands. Were the lives lost so insignificant? I now find myself in a somewhat similar position. Why the significant variability or range in estimates of the incidence of autism? Why doesn’t someone know how many children have autism? Are the children with autism lost and insignificant? Hmmmm…

The answer may lie in the fact that autism is not a thing but rather the diagnosis refers to a constellation of symptoms/problems with a developmental onset or emerging during first three years of life. The diagnostic criteria or symptoms/problems required for the diagnosis of autism reads something like a Chinese Restaurant menu including “A total of six (or more) items from (1), (2) and (3) with at least two from (1), and one each from (2) and (3)”… that should clear everything up. Want to know what criteria (1), (2) and (3) are? Google Autism Disorder DSM.

But what are the core or essential characteristics of autism? Hmmm… the answer is that the symptoms vary as a function of age. What is normal in a one-year old may be abnormal in a four year-old.

  • Early signs (during the first 6-12 months of life) of an autism spectrum disorder may include poor eye contact during parent-child interactions, an absence of cooing/babbling, an absence of reciprocal smiling and apparent indifference to others that may include tactile sensory features ranging from recoiling from touch to requirements for swaddling/holding close.
  • During the 12 – 24 month age range, symptoms of a potential autism spectrum disorder include persistence of early signs along with no attempts to speak with associated gestural communications, limited communicative intent, limited play, repetitive body movements (ie., hand flapping, rocking, etc.), fixation on objects (ie., moving fans, prisms, balls, etc.), resistance to change and a tendency for the child to become overwhelmed in high stimulation settings.
  • Later (age 24 months+) emerging features of a potential autism spectrum disorder include (in addition to persistence of other symptoms noted previously) a lack of initiation to engage in reciprocal play with peers, limited play, emergence of over-select behaviors (ie., lines up objects, requirements for sameness, etc.) and difficulties following the gaze of others. In addition, emergence of exaggerated fear responses ranging from extreme rage to total indifference (ie., to pain) is often observed.

So, does your child have an autism spectrum disorder? I do not know but I tend to have infinite faith in the gut feelings of mothers. If a mother informs me that she has fears that something may be amiss in the development of her child, I generally believe that something may be wrong. The answer? Sorry if I sound repetitive on this… but… you may wish to consider an evaluation to shed some light on the fears. So, if it is an autism spectrum disorder, what causes it? Hmmmm… let me think about that one (see you next week)…


Dr. Richard Dowell is a Neuropsychologist located in Pennsylvania. Dr. Dowell evaluates upwards of 400 children and adolescents each year. In addition, Dr. Dowell is recognized as one of the top Forensic Neuropsychological witnesses in the North East.

Dr. Dowell can be contacted at

For more information on Neuropsychology visit

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