While many parents would probably say they'd at least have a hunch if something was amiss with their child, the numbers tell a different story: A full 50 percent of parents of children ages newborn to 6 cannot cite a single sign of autism, found research from the Ad Council. That's why, in 2006, the advocacy organization Autism Speaks lauched the public-service ad campaign "Learn the Signs of Autism" with the Ad Council as well as BBDO New York, which has long been the volunteer ad agency for Autism Speaks. In the nine years since the campaign began, the public's awareness of the key signs of autism has jumped significantly, according to research from the Ad Council.
Now there's a new and really cool animated PSA from the organization called "The World of Autism" that takes you on a journey through the eyes of Jacob, an 11-year-old boy with autism who was nonverbal until he was 4. By seeing the world through Jacob's viewpoint, we can appreciate how overstimulating and overwhelming life can be for a child with autism. The ad is also meant to help parents recognize possible red flags in their own child's behavior.
So what are those red flags? Here are the major ones; if you've spotted any, please discuss it with your pediatrician as soon as you can:
Autism Speaks offers many resources for parents with questions. You can download a more elaborate checklist that helps screen your child for potential problems, and watch videos of both typical and atypical behavior. But here's what's key to remember: The signs of autism can be subtle, and not every child fits a classic description. Jacob's mom, Carmen, explains how her son's experience unfolded:
"Jacob was 2 1/2 when he was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified). He received a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder, Mild when he was 5. As a mother, I always felt in tune with my child, and I always remember feeling as if something was not right, even prior to age 1. Jacob met most of his developmental milestones on time or some even a bit early, such as speaking. Before his first birthday, he could say "mama," "dada," "bless you," and "thank you." At about 13 months, though, he stopped speaking entirely, and that is when we really began to question whether it might be autism. However, he did not fit the mold, per se. He LOVED hugs and appeared friendly. We now know that autism is a spectrum disorder, and there are no two autistic children alike. Each is unique in their own way."
Carmen also underscores how it can be easy to explain away your child's behavior, no matter how worrisome it may be: "I believe the easiest sign for parents to overlook is delayed speech. It's so easy to rationalize this by saying that a child may just be slower to speak, or, specifically in bilingual homes, they may say that the child is confused. An evaluation through early intervention is provided free of cost to every family and can help to rule out any delays."
Carmen, who is Latina, adds this important point: "Many families, especially in the Latino community, are fearful of 'labeling' their child, and this prevents many families from reaching out sooner."
But thanks to the early intervention services Jacob received upon his PDD-NOS diagnosis—speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy—he learned so much and progressed so quickly that now he gets only counseling and speech therapy. (Speech is what Carmen says has had the biggest impact—within months, Jacob went from not speaking at all to speaking in full sentences!) These services are designed to improve his social skills, though Carmen says that's also aided by his interaction with his two typical siblings, who are 8 and nearly 2.
Kara Corridan is the health director at Parents magazine and the mom of two daughters, ages 7 and 10.