The Urgency of Early Diagnosis
There is one point upon which every autism advocate and expert agree: The earlier in life ASD can be identified and treated, the better. That's because the younger we are, the more adaptable our brains are, explains Beck. In the case of autism, it's believed that intensive therapy early on may encourage the young brain to reroute itself around faulty neural pathways.
While therapies vary widely, the most effective forms aim to actively engage ASD children, teaching them skills that come naturally to most of us -- from making eye contact and playing with others to actually learning how to speak and control their body. In some cases, effective, early intervention could make the difference between a child's eventually being mainstreamed in school or not, says Nancy Wiseman, an ASD mother who founded First Signs, a public awareness campaign and training program that focuses on early detection of ASD and other developmental disorders. (Log on to firstsigns.org for helpful checklists as well as autism resources and links.)
For children diagnosed with milder forms of ASD -- such as Asperger's syndrome -- early intervention can teach them how to relate better to others and potentially lessen their sense of alienation throughout life. Even the most severely affected children, who may never develop the ability to speak, can possibly learn alternate ways of communicating.
Intervening early can also put the skids on a truly vicious cycle that develops between ASD children and those around them. "In general, the less responsive a child is -- the less he coos, smiles, makes eye contact -- the less of this stuff he tends to get back from parents and others," says Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, in Baltimore.
The result may be that the child then spends more time focusing just on himself, paying attention to things that won't help him relate to others around him. "A key part of early intervention is teaching parents how to elicit responses and get the best out of their baby," says Landa.