Autism and early intervention

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

As the parent of a child with autism, I am often approached by other concerned parents regarding the development of their children. I am usually asked what I think when their child is 2 and not speaking, making eye contact, or socializing the way the parents think they should. Usually their pediatrician has told them to "wait" because "every child develops differently." My response RUN, don't walk, to your nearest developmental specialist or early intervention program and demand an immediate evaluation.

The medical community is full of pediatricians who tell their patients' parents to WAIT. I must emphasize that waiting is never the right choice. If you have your child evaluated and nothing is out of the ordinary, then all you wasted was some of your time. Your peace of mind is well worth it. If the evaluation finds problems, then the physician's advice to wait might have cost your child years of intervention that cannot be replaced.

I was very fortunate that I had the best pediatrician on the planet, in my opinion, who told me to get an evaluation "NOW." When my son, Evan, was a year old, he had a vocabulary of about five words. He didn't have as many as his older brother, Zachary, but Zach used to talk for Evan all the time. Who would develop language if someone was always talking for them? By the time he was 18 months old, he had lost those words and was regressing in other areas. I took him in for his 18-month well visit and our pediatrician, Susan Shamaskin in Wellington, FL, looked at me and said, "He needs to be evaluated as soon as possible. Don't wait, call today and make the appointment because it will take you several weeks to get in."

I will be forever grateful for Dr. Shamaskin's prudent advice. Evan was evaluated about six weeks after our well-checkup and started early intervention speech and occupational therapy within days. His evaluation scores were so low that I was convinced he'd never catch up.

Evan was diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified) at age 2 and Autism Spectrum Disorder at 5. From his initial PDD diagnosis, we treated it like autism and dove into therapy with a vengeance. He was in therapy five days a week until he started ESE Pre-K at 3 1/2 years old. We took a six-month break and resumed vigilant therapy at age 4. The pace continued until we moved to Vero Beach last summer, where I have picked up much of the work at home.

I absolutely believe that early intervention saved Evan's life. He is a happy fourth grader in general education, with lots of support and a strong IEP. He has High-Functioning Autism, but unless you are his reading teacher, you'd never know there was anything different about this delightful, social child. He has his eccentricities, but most people just find them endearing. He doesn't make friends in the same way as his two neuro-typical brothers, but he enjoys the friends he has and the activities in which he's involved. For all intents and purposes, he's a normal 9-year-old with all the moods, likes and dislikes shared by his counterparts.

I can't stress strongly enough the importance of early intervention. Every autism-related website, book, article or professional will tell you the same thing: early intervention can make the difference between a low- to moderate-functioning person on the spectrum and a person who is virtually indistinguishable from their peers. Early intervention can make the difference between 8 years of therapy or 20 years of therapy. Early intervention can make the difference between a general education curriculum and a self-contained ESE classroom.

It's not always as dramatic as that. But there can be no argument that early evaluation and intervention will benefit your child in ways you cannot possibly imagine right now, but will definitely see in the future. If your kids are 2 and aren't speaking, if you can't understand what they say or if only YOU understand what they say, if their siblings "speak for them," if they don't have a vocabulary of about 200 words, you must get them evaluated! If your child doesn't make eye contact, react to their environment, or respond to stimuli in a way that appears normal, you must get them evaluated.

To all of those pediatricians telling their patients' parents to "wait," please don't say that anymore. Yes, every child does develop at a different pace. But there are developmental norms that can only be stretched so far, and we can only wait so long. We are not willing to allow our children to fall farther and farther behind because you keep telling us to "wait." We can't allow our older children to "speak" for our younger children. We can't pretend that poor expressive and receptive speech skills just need "a little time."

DON'T WAIT! If you suspect your child has a developmental delay, have your child evaluated. Even if someone tells you to wait. If your child isn't hitting his milestones but YOU don't think there is a delay, have your child evaluated anyway. Parents, you must get yourselves out of denial and have your children evaluated anyway, even if you don't think there is a significant problem. A slight delay can snowball into a serious problem if it's not identified and addressed. There is no harm in having the evaluation and confirming, or not, your suspicions. It will give you peace of mind and possibly save your child's life. What are you waiting for?

*Reprinted with permission from Autism and Early Intervention by Marcia Weinstein, 2008. Parenting Special Needs Magazine, Issue, Copyright [2008-09] by Parenting Special Needs LLC.