Can My Child Have Autism?

Jennifer is an attractive, thirty something year old health professional; a licensed physical therapist. She is also so bright, were you to meet her, you could not help but notice how intelligent she is. Yet when her second son, Aidan, at age one, failed to be as verbally precocious as her first son, she panicked and immediately assumed the worst. Her son must have the diagnosis du jour. Aidan must be autistic.

What made her so quick to assume the worst? Articles about medical conditions on the Autism Spectrum are currently the rage. They are today's informed good parents "thing to watch out for," which makes conditions on the spectrum the present day good mother's fear monster. This is similar to how Attention Deficit Disorder was the good mother's fear monster a generation ago.

The thing is, as it turns out, Aidan is not autistic. Moreover, due to Jennifer's diligent observations and refusal to let people pooh-pooh her intuition away, her son will soon be getting hearing aids along with other early interventions for his now diagnosed hearing loss. At age fifteen months, he'll already be getting help, thanks to his two very loving parents.

My point for telling you this? We have a problem. We know how crucial early interventions are to our children's well being. We also know how important this makes being educated with regard to possible things to watch out for. However, while I fully support that we currently disseminate much good information to parents, we seem to be failing to balance this with reassurances to the contrary; that your child may not have autism, and that if he or she does this is not equivalent to a death sentence.

Can you picture what made Jennifer so afraid her son had autism? It's obvious. The primary symptom of any kind of autism is a significant inability to connect socially. And yes, Aidan did have difficulty connecting socially. But only with sound. Never through touch, or sight, or smell, or taste. In fact, were you to make eye contact with little Aidan in his bouncy chair, you too would immediately be able to see this for yourself. He'd excitedly jump and wave his hands and smile the most angelic smile, all the while his eyes widening as if to say, "Oh, boy! I see you seeing me!"

Now recall how I've just defined autism, as a significant inability to connect socially. This means if you see in your child the kind of reaction Jennifer saw in Aidan; socially connecting with enthusiastic joy, then you can pretty much rule out autism of any kind. At least until you can consult with a qualified professional.

Now let me list a few interpersonal tools with which you can face this particular fear monster head on.

  • Autism is a condition wherein a person, in some significant fashion, repeatedly fails to connect socially. Thus if you are worried your child has autism, don't run out and read the ten most popular books, then painfully compare your child to their lists of symptoms and behaviors. Doing this will guarantee this fear monster will own your soul in no time. Better to fall back on this little lay assessment tool for autism. At least, initially. And yes, this description is certainly no substitute for competent professional help. But it is a good way to get a real read on today's diagnosis du jour, and enough perspective to free yourself from the "oh, my God, my child has . . ." fear monster.
  • If you do notice something which concerns you, realize that failures to connect socially can generally be categorized into noticeable degrees of the five physical senses; touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound. Here, by "noticeable," I mean a significant, persistent, over or under reaction. Thus, if your child overreacts or underreacts to being touched, you need to note this then investigate further. And no, this does not indicate your child is autistic. However it does indicate your child may have special needs, anything from having been startled by the taste of broccoli all the way up to something far more serious. What I'm suggesting is, try not to run to the Internet to self diagnose. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Do, however, slowly and calmly, begin to gather more information, keeping in mind that any qualified professional will greatly benefit from your loving observations.
  • This in fact is a good way to screen your child's health care providers. If they ask for and take into consideration your calm observations, then you can be assured you'll benefit from consulting with them. If, however, they dismiss your observations in any way, run don't walk to the nearest exit, regardless of how many accolades or how much alphabet soup they have. Trust your gut. Your child is relying on you to pick a loving and competent health care professional. And remember what happened to little Aidan because his mother trusted her gut. His whole life will be considerably better.
  • What if you sense something more serious? Here, the thing to note is that failures to connect socially which occur in more than one physical sense qualify as something requiring more serious attention. Again, remember there is no substitute for loving observations, including that the calmer parent or grandparent should be included in these observations so as to balance out the fearful observations of the more frightened parent. Know that observing then comparing notes before promptly writing down what you see is one of the best ways to be there for your child. And to calm yourself. Also remember to bring these written observations with you when consulting with a professional, which in the case of seeing multiple physical senses being affected, you should certainly consider.
  • Lastly, I cannot stress enough the value of early intervention. Both personality and physiology develop very quickly and often in ways hard to predict when children are young. Thus, while there is no guarantee all your interventions will succeed, early interventions significantly raise the odds your child will have a better life. This makes your loving observations a key element in your children's well being and facing your fear monsters a must for good parenting.

Steven Paglierani is a writer, teacher, personality theorist, and therapist whose work on human consciousness is read weekly by thousands all over the world. He is the author of the first fractal personality theory; Emergence Personality Theory, and his mission is to make the world better for children by restoring and deepening their love of learning.