Diagnosing Autism, With Westchester's Best Minds

Your child may be the one in 68. Local experts help decipher the signs.



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As the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States, autism spectrum disorder currently afflicts one in 68 children and one in 42 boys (according to the most recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention report), with the numbers continuing to climb. Present from early childhood, autism is characterized by difficulty in communicating, learning, and forming relationships with other people. But, despite the growing social and economic impact and awareness campaigns, the how and why of autism still remain a mystery.

An Evolving Epidemic

In line with the national statistics, Susan Varsames, founder of the Holistic Learning Center in White Plains—a resource for families affected by autism and other language, learning, and behavior disorders—says she’s likewise witnessed a steep rise in the number of cases throughout her career in special education. When she was asked by the county to spearhead Westchester’s first Early Intervention Program at the Westchester Center for Educational and Emotional Development in the mid 1980s, there were three known families in Westchester dealing with the disorder. “In those days, the symptoms were very severe,” she recalls. “It was quite rare to see a case of Asperger’s syndrome. When families got the diagnosis, they would mourn the death of the child they thought they would have.”  Now, thankfully, new treatments offer greater hope of unlocking a child’s potential. 

Researchers are also looking at a range of culprits in their search to find the cause or causes, which, in turn, may lead to a cure. Varsames subscribes to the “total load theory,” which points to the combined effects of overly prescribed antibiotics, as well as possible toxins (such as the preservative thimerosal) in children’s vaccines, and the environment, as a possible cause. While the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have concluded that there is no association between vaccines containing thimerosal and autism rates in children, she believes vaccines contribute to an increased toxic load. This, combined with the effects of genetically modified food products, can negatively impact the developing brain, she believes. Varsames also cites premature birth as a risk factor, noting that significant “sensory processing occurs late in pregnancy that helps children create a more mature neurological system.” 

Watching and Waiting

With diagnoses on the rise, definitive causes not yet proven, and no known cure, many parents understandably experience anxiety if they see a sign indicating that their child may be that one in 68. No medical detection is currently available, leaving clinicians and parents to rely on behavioral signs to confirm diagnosis. According to the austism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, early diagnosis and intervention offers the best chance for improving academic and social skills, as well as quality of life into adulthood. 

However, a new study written by Warren R. Jones and Ami Klin, both of the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta, and published by the scientific journal Nature  shows promise for eye-tracking technology as a means of early detection in infants as young as 2 to 6 months of age. The study showed that children later diagnosed with autism are less likely to make eye contact as infants. During the study, infants were shown videos of women acting as caregivers. The researchers used eye-tracking technology and found the babies who didn’t make eye contact were more likely to develop autism. While these findings may show promise for early intervention, further confirmation is required. 

Because behavioral signs can evolve and change in very young children, “it’s quite hard to really know if autism is present until a child is closer to 2 years old,” says Catherine Lord, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain, a collaborative program between Weill Cornell Medical College, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. 

To capitalize on critical intervention time, it’s important to identify a core set of behaviors as quickly as possible (see sidebar). “Seeing any one of these signs should encourage some concern,” says Lord, though she recognizes that interpreting the behavior of toddlers can be challenging. Certain suspicious behaviors may present early on and then resolve on their own, or a child may develop typically until an unexpected setback. “Some kids don’t show all the signs,” she says, “but most don’t show just one.”

“You only receive the [autism] diagnosis with delays in language, socialization, and behavior,” Varsames concurs. “A child may be shy or a slow talker or have poor eye contact or language difficulties. If they have only one of these issues, they might have other problems, but not an autism spectrum disorder.” 

Taking Action

The initial step for parents with concerns, Lord says, is to talk to their pediatrician or family doctor. 

Then caretakers should request an evaluation from a professional experienced with young children with autism, such as a developmental pediatrician. If the wait for an appointment is long or if there no developmental pediatrician nearby, parents can contact Westchester County’s Early Intervention Program (914-813-5094) to start seeking services.

A good evaluation should serve two purposes. The first is to make a tentative diagnosis to determine what’s wrong. For autism, this should involve gathering information from the parents or caregivers about the child’s everyday functioning, coupled with an observation of the child interacting and playing with a skilled examiner. 

The other goal, Lord says, is to “better understand the child as a whole, in terms of strengths and weaknesses, so that the best approach or approaches to therapy and education can be determined. Parents may want a more careful evaluation to figure out what kinds of strategies may work best for them and their child.”