Don't Ignore Your Instincts
This is why parents should be vigilant about having their concerns addressed. "Don't wait until the end of the visit when the doctor's starting to walk out the door. Tell him or her right up front what you want to talk about and come with examples -- 'My baby doesn't look me in the eye and doesn't seem to notice when I walk in the room.' 'My 18-month-old isn't interested in games like peekaboo,' or 'She's missed the following developmental milestones,'" says Wiseman.
If your pediatrician dismisses your concerns or advises a wait-and-see approach, take action, says Wiseman, no matter how much you want to believe his or her comforting words. "If the pediatrician refuses to have her screened, find another pediatrician or locate a specialist, such as a developmental pediatrician or pediatric neurologist," Wiseman says.
Parents of children under 3 can also schedule an appointment at the state-funded Early Intervention center in their area, which will provide a free developmental assessment and references to specialists qualified to make a formal diagnosis. Whatever you do, don't let sleeping dogs lie if your concerns haven't been satisfactorily addressed. "We've seen time and time again that parents know their kids best, and when they suspect that something isn't right, their instincts are usually accurate," says Dawson.
Whether you've fought for an assessment or are stunned by a physician's unexpected observation, hearing that your child might have a developmental disorder -- much less some form of autism -- can rock you to the core. "When I heard the word 'autism,' alarm bells went off in my head. My husband and I grieved for the loss of the successful child we had always imagined," says Maguire, whose daughter currently attends a special preschool but may eventually be mainstreamed.
True, there is no cure for autism yet, and it does mean that life may take a different direction. Some children who are severely challenged will remain severely challenged, no matter how early they are treated. Financial hardship is another concern because not all treatments for ASD are covered by insurance or provided by the state. But in diagnosis and treatment, there also comes empowerment and hope.
"You have to remember that your child is the same child the day after you receive the news as he was the day before. A diagnosis of ASD is actually the key that opens the door to all sorts of interventions and techniques that will help him live a fulfilling and productive life," says 43-year-old Stephen Shore, who was diagnosed with autism as a young child and given intensive therapy. Shore has gone on to marry and attend grad school.
Watching the Wallace twins -- two children who weren't speaking and were hesitant to interact with non-family members when their therapist began working with them four months earlier -- is convincing enough. "I know that not all children do this well," says mom Juliet, who is still somewhat hesitant about saying that her boys are on the autism spectrum. "Ultimately, though, I guess I don't care what you call it. Getting my boys help has made a difference."