Dealing with the Diagnosis

The number of kids affected is staggering, but an early diagnosis can make a dramatic difference.

One Mother's Story

By the time Lennon reached his first birthday, Shannon Gunn-Burghart had a disquieting feeling that her son was developing differently from his twin, Frannie.

"I'd sit them both on my lap to read a book, and while Frannie was attentive, Lennon would show no interest," the Texas mom recalls. "Over the next few months, Frannie was starting to speak in sentences, but Lennon only knew two words, mamma and ball, and even then he didn't seem to know what they meant. On playdates, Frannie was involved and attentive, while Lennon paid no attention to the other toddlers."

Gunn-Burghart repeatedly brought up her concerns to her pediatrician, who reassured her that boys developed more slowly than girls. But to Gunn-Burghart's dismay, as Lennon got older, he slowly began to slip away -- not speaking, not responding to his name, and not making eye contact. "The turning point came after his second birthday, when I called his name while he was watching a video," she recalls. "He didn't acknowledge me. I kept repeating it, louder and louder, until I was hysterically shouting his name, and he still didn't seem to notice."

The Diagnosis

Terrified, Gunn-Burghart raced to make appointments with specialists, shuttling Lennon from doctor to doctor until finally one diagnosed him with autism. "It was like being thrown into the Black Sea -- just hearing those words was devastating," she says. "But once I knew what was going on, I focused all my energies on getting him into treatment."

Today, Lennon is much like any other 4-year-old: He plays with Frannie, runs to his mother for hugs, and loves swimming. But Gunn-Burghart says she's still frustrated that it took six months to get a diagnosis: "That was time in which my son could have benefited from therapy," she says. "I am so grateful that I listened to my instincts."

Types of Autism

While the word "autism" may conjure up the image of Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man, struggles like Lennon's are now diagnosed as autism too. That's because the condition is now termed Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and encompasses a wide range of symptoms. It affects 1 in 166 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- a 172 percent increase since the early 1990s. When it was first identified in the 1940s, the disease was greatly misunderstood, "but now decades of research reveal it's a developmental disability due to a neurological disorder that affects brain functioning," says Chris Plauche Johnson, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas. "Typically, signs include communication problems, trouble with or little interest in interacting with others, and unusual behaviors such as rocking or rolling eyes."

Also falling under the umbrella of autism is Asperger's disorder, known as "high-functioning autism," which is often overlooked because symptoms are dismissed as social awkwardness. What do children with autism have in common? "They all have the potential to improve, sometimes dramatically, if they're diagnosed and treated early in life," says David Holmes, MD, past chairman of the Autism Society of America.

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