Summer 2013
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Early Diagnosis, Behavioral Therapy Key to Thriving

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New research is making it easier to diagnose and treat children with autism spectrum disorder earlier than ever before. And with early intervention, children with autism have a greater chance of success.

Today, there is no consensus about the cause of autism spectrum disorder. ASD, one of several nervous system disorders, typically presents before a child turns three and is marked by language delay, social impairments and fixed behaviors such as focus on objects, parts of objects or themes.

“We need to see these patients to evaluate and understand their underlying neurological, behavioral and development challenges,” said Dr. Freedom F. Perkins, pediatric neurologist, Neuroscience Center, Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. “The sooner we make a diagnosis, the better the individual's chance for successful long-term outcomes.”

As kids grow and develop, we often track their progress by noting their height and weight as it compares to their peers. In a similar manner, it’s important to watch for developmental milestones such as language comprehension and socialization.

While each patient’s signs and symptoms vary, these are some common signals to look for:

  • Lack of, or delay in, spoken language
  • Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Lack of interest in peer relationships
  • Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects

In addition to the typical signs of autism in children, Dr. Perkins also sees many patients presenting with hypersensitivity to texture and sounds, as well as behaviors often attributed to anxiety, such as fear of crowds and rigidity. For parents who suspect autism, the child’s pediatrician is the perfect place to start for a full medical work-up and to assess developmental milestones. If an exam confirms possible delays, the patient should be referred to a pediatric neurologist or developmental pediatrician to conduct a broad range of developmental assessments to more accurately diagnose the disorder.

And while there are several treatment options and medications for children with autism, Dr. Perkins sees the greatest success from behavioral therapy.

“I’ve seen significant improvements in language, interpersonal and social development with patients who are consistently engaged in behavioral therapy,” Dr. Perkins said. “While there are always new twists on behavioral therapy, I believe the quantity and quality of time with a good behavioral therapist, usually more than 10 hours per week, is key to success.”

When selecting a therapy center, Dr. Perkins suggests looking for a center that is clean, well-organized and the staff, patients and families appear to enjoy being there. He also recommends looking for a center that employs board-certified behavior analysts. These professionals are often well-versed in a number of behavior modification techniques.

Dr. Freedom Frederick Perkins is a pediatric neurologist practicing at the Neuroscience Center at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas. His professional interests include epilepsy, autism, magnetoencephalography (MEG), functional brain mapping, brain development and developmental disorders.

Resources:

Child Developmental Milestones, Centers for Disease Control
Autism Society
Autism Speaks

Early Diagnosis, Behavioral Therapy Key to Thriving
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Good Health for Kids is produced by Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas.