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Autism awareness: Parents should know facts, myths

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Signs of autism can be present in children as young as 18 months. Concerned parents should first contact their physician to conduct a screening. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Signs of autism can be present in children as young as 18 months. Concerned parents should first contact their physician to conduct a screening. (Courtesy photo)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- It affects almost one in every 150 children. It can affect speech, social skills and physical control. And while the signs may be difficult to see in a young child, early identification is paramount to successful therapy.

It's autism, and parents need to be aware of possible signs of autism, as well as the myths and facts of this developmental disorder.

Signs of autism can be present in children as young as 18 months, according to the California Department of Developmental Services. Studies have even shown that experienced clinicians can reliably diagnose autism in children between 24 and 30 months old. Following the recommendations of top pediatricians, the 30th Medical Group pediatric clinic does a screening as part of a child's regular check-up at 18 months.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages physicians to have some sort of formal screening tool for autism," said Capt. (Dr.) Michael Riggall, medical director of the 30th MDG pediatric clinic here. "We have a 23 question questionnaire that looks at everything from what words they say and how many they say to how they get their parent's attention when they want something."

One of the most important questions asked is whether or not the child will look in the direction a person's finger is pointing, Dr. Riggall said. This could be a sign the child does not have "joint attention."

"Children who don't have that complete social understanding will continue to just look at the object that they're pulling their parent to or pointing at," he said. "What we'd like to see children do is point at the object they want and then look back at their parent to see if their parent sees them pointing, because then they have joint attention - the ability to draw attention from another person to what they're doing."

Other common signs, according to the First Screening, Training, Education Project, or First S.T.E.P., are no babbling, pointing or other gestures by 12 months, no single words by 16 months or no spontaneous waving of hello or good-bye.

Parents who notice such signs should first call their physician.

"The reason it's important to call here is because there are lots of other things that can look like autism that are medically based; there is a repertoire of basic labs that we typically do if a child has development delay of any kind," Dr. Riggall said. "So, if there's delay in their development, yes autism is one of the things we're going to be thinking about, but it's just one of many things and they need to be medically evaluated, not just evaluated by the (Tri-Counties Regional Center)."

The Tri-Counties Regional Center in Santa Barbara and Santa Maria, Calif., evaluate and set up treatment for children with developmental disorders, all for free. Concerned parents can call the center without a referral of any kind.

Vandenberg happens to be located near a major autism center, which is part of the University of California at Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, Calif. If a parent contacts the regional center about autism concerns, the child will be referred to the First S.T.E.P., which is located at the university. After the diagnosis has been made, the regional center sets up all the resources, including therapy, if needed.

While it can be hard for a parent to find out their child has a developmental disorder such as autism, they should educate themselves on the disorder to be able to discern between fact and fiction. One thing to remember, according to the Autism Society of America, is that there are great differences among people with autism; what's true for one person with autism is not true for all.

For example, a common myth is that children with autism never make eye contact. According to the Autism Society of America, however, while eye contact may be less or different from typical children, autistic children do look at people, smile and express other non-verbal communications.

Another common myth is that children with autism do not speak. In truth, autistic children might like lack the ability to communicate appropriately, but they may have a very good repertoire of words, Dr. Riggall said.

Education and communication are the key to early detection of developmental disorders such as autism. Parents must learn the facts about the disorder and talk to their physician if they have concerns.

For more information on autism or other developmental disorders, contact the 30th MDG pediatric clinic at 606-2146, or the Tri-Counties Regional Center in Santa Maria toll free at (800) 266-9071 or in Santa Barbara toll free at (800) 322-6994.