Autism is a disorder that appears within the first 3 years of life. In the brain of a child with autism, some cells and connections don’t develop normally or are not organized like they’re supposed to, leading to abnormal behaviors. Children with autism have difficulties with social interaction, verbal as well as non-verbal communication and can also display ritualistic behaviors. There is no known single cause for autism, but researchers are investigating a possible connection to genetics and the environment. Some kids might be more likely to get autism because it runs in their families. Other kids get it even if nobody in their family has these types of problems. Researchers are also investigating problems during pregnancy or delivery as well as environmental factors, such as viral infections, metabolic imbalances, and exposure to environmental chemicals as a possible cause.
The prevalence of autism is estimated to have risen to 1 in every 88 births in the US and is more common in boys. The increasing prevalence demonstrates how important it is for the nation to consider how to better serve the families facing a lifelong need of support for their children. In a recent study by the CDC, it was reported that the largest increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism is in Hispanic and African-American children. Additionally, the age of diagnosis is higher among Hispanic and African-American families than anyone else. This is something that needs to change as early intervention leads to better outcomes.
Kids with autism often can’t make connections that other kids make easily. Children with autism have trouble understanding what emotions look like and what another person is thinking. They might act in a way that seems unusual or difficult to understand. Some other potential red flags that could be found in children with autism include not babbling, cooing or gesturing by 12 months, not speaking single words by 16 months or not saying two-word phrases by 24 months or having any loss of any language or social skill at any age. Having any of these signs doesn’t mean that your child has autism, but because there is so much variety among affected children, children with these behaviors should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team, which may include a neurologist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician and speech/language therapist.
The most important thing for parents to do is to act quickly whenever there is a concern about a child’s development by talking with a doctor or calling your local early intervention program or school system for evaluation. The earlier a child starts getting help, the better. Although there is no cure for autism, doctors, therapists and teachers can help kids to learn how to interact with their environment.
Daniella Palermo, originally from Bronx, NY, is currently a third year medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. She is the co-founder and current president of SUNY Upstate’s Latino Medical Student Association, a national organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the health needs of the Latino community. LMSA members, including herself, are looking forward to continuing to contribute to CNY Latino and raising awareness regarding the many health issues affecting the Latinos of Central NY and beyond.