The Detection of Autism

Detection of autism in any of its forms is not always as easy as one might think. Many people, particularly high-functioning autistics or those with Asperger Syndrome remain undetected into their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s. One such noteworthy case is Susan Boyle, who wasn’t diagnosed until she was in her 40’s.

Susan, if you don’t recall, is the Scottish woman who appeared on Britain’s Got Talent, looking rather frumpy and matronly. People scoffed, as if talent were limited to only those with good looks. As soon as Susan began to sing however, attitudes changed, for her voice was angelic and talent heaven-sent. Susan revealed only months after her stunning appearance on television that she was recently diagnosed with Asperger’s.

Some autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s may not have been diagnosed or detected. It’s important to remember that diagnosis is of this particular spectrum disorder is relatively new.

Doctors often have difficulty detecting autism, as it’s a spectrum disorder. Each autistic person’s condition varies from others based on where how the condition specifically affects them.

The chart below will help parents, teachers and caregivers detect early signs of autism. Click the image to see it full-size.
Early Signs of Autism
Detecting Autism
While some of the behavioral conditions described above may be caused by other conditions than autism, if two or more are evident, it is best to have a child checked. Detection techniques today are vastly improved and may help parents and children alike gain a fuller understanding of the condition and where a child or adult places on the spectrum. From there, care may begin.

Detection in adults may be easier as there’s often patterns of behavior that are more noticeable and routine, and often the adult is able to articulate their concerns. Frequently adults with Asperger’s Syndrome live their lives without detection or diagnosis.

It is rare for someone with autism to self-detect and seek diagnosis and care. In almost every case, detection is made by others, including parents, grandparents, teachers, school psychologists and others.
Here are some of the core signals that apply to both adults and children.

Social interactions and relationships. Symptoms may include:

  • Significant problems developing nonverbal communication skills, such as eye-to-eye gazing, facial expressions, and body posture.
  • Failure to establish friendships with children the same age.
  • Lack of interest in sharing enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people.
  • Lack of empathy. People with autism may have difficulty understanding another person’s feelings, such as pain or sorrow.

Verbal and nonverbal communication. Symptoms may include:

  • Delay in, or lack of, learning to talk. As many as 40% of people with autism never speak.
  • Problems taking steps to start a conversation. Also, people with autism have difficulties continuing a conversation after it has begun.
  • Stereotyped and repetitive use of language. People with autism often repeat over and over a phrase they have heard previously (echolalia).
  • Difficulty understanding their listener’s perspective. For example, a person with autism may not understand that someone is using humor. They may interpret the communication word for word and fail to catch the implied meaning.

Limited interests in activities or play. Symptoms may include:

  • An unusual focus on pieces. Younger children with autism often focus on parts of toys, such as the wheels on a car, rather than playing with the entire toy.
  • Preoccupation with certain topics. For example, older children and adults may be fascinated by video games, trading cards, or license plates.
  • A need for sameness and routines. For example, a child with autism may always need to eat bread before salad and insist on driving the same route every day to school.
  • Stereotyped behaviors. These may include body rocking and hand flapping.

Parents should look for behavioral issues developing as early as the first year, such as the child turning his or her head away to avoid eye contact with parents, siblings or grandparents. Disinterest in playing some games like peekaboo, disdain for being held and cuddled, and failure to begin to talk when expected. Parents should monitor a child’s speech development. Even if the child begins to speak in proper timing, they may lose speech skills. Parents may also believe the child to be deaf when he or she fails to respond to sounds, but may react to shrill sounds such as train whistles.

Teens face grave difficulties with autism. Social interactions are difficult, and they often feel isolated and alone, despite increased skills with interaction. Puberty causes a range of unique frustrations often leading to depression, anxiety and unfortunately, suicidal behavior. Epilepsy has been known to emerge during an autistic’s teen years.

Many people with autism have unusual sensory perceptions. For example, they may describe a light touch as painful and deep pressure as providing a calming feeling. Others may not feel pain at all. Some people with autism have strong food likes and dislikes and unusual preoccupations.

Parents, caregivers and family should consider these facts with the children, teens and adults in their care, and seek proper medical diagnosis quickly. Equally, awareness of brilliance should also be considered. A child prodigy, for example, should also be evaluated. If, for example, a child can compose music at at 4 or 5, or can perform intense mathematical calculations in Kindergarten, it’s very likely he or she is an Aspergian, and may be a genius.

WebMD courteously contributed to this article.