Often parents don't know what to do or who to talk to when they suspect their child may be autistic. We can help.

Chances are you are reading this article because you are worried that your child or a child you care about has autism. We are here to give you as much information as possible about diagnosis options and what to expect in the coming days, months and years.

Want to hear from other parents? Watch here. Or check out our Your Voice special on autism.

In this article:

What is Autism?
Symptoms: What are you noticing?
When do the symptoms usually appear?
Who Diagnoses Autism?
While you're waiting
What causes autism?
Who treats autism?
Want more?

What is Autism?

Autism is a neurobiological disorder. There are many disorders that fall under the umbrella of autism, so today children are diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder or ASD. However some parents are still given a specific disorder as a diagnosis, such as:

  • PDD-NOS- Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified: Sounds pretty non-specific. Children have some but not all of the symptoms of classic autism. Autism Speaks provides a very detailed explanation.
  • Asperger's: This is thought to be on the milder side of the spectrum where people have difficulties in communication and social skills.
  • Classic Autism: People with autism have higher degree of difficulty in communication and social skills. They also have repetitive behaviour (they do the same thing over and over again).
  • Rett Syndrome: This is a very severe disorder in which children often can't walk or talk. It is sometimes fatal.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder (CDD): This is a very rare disorder in the spectrum. Kids with CDD often do not display symptoms of autism until they have developed normally for up to four years. They will suddenly lose their language and communication skills.

Symptoms: What are you noticing?

  • They might be delayed in their speech or not have words.
  • They might have differences in their language--like they repeat back words or echo words.
  • They make very little eye contact.
  • They may like to do the same thing over and over again.
  • They may like to look at things for long periods of time like lights or reflections.
  • They may like the way something feels so they touch it over and over again.
  • They may hate the way things feel on their skin like clothing.
  • They may have a heightened sense of smell or hearing. So they may hear noises and smell odours the rest of us wouldn't even notice.
  • They do not like to play with other children or do not play appropriately.

Remember that most parents who feel deep down that something is wrong are usually right. You know your child more than anyone else, so trust your instincts. There is no harm in finding out and early intervention is key to helping your child.

When do the symptoms usually appear?

18 months is the usual age when parents really notice something. But some parents have said they noticed right away or just after 12 months. If your child is older than 18 months and you're just noticing things now, it may be that the differences were subtle or people dismissed your concerns. Do not worry, it is never too late to get a diagnosis and help.

Many parents have said they didn't really notice things at home but they certainly noticed the differences when they brought their child to play with other kids their age. So bring your child to a toddler or preschool group in your area and see how they interact. Some questions to ask:

  • Are they playing alone?
  • Do they interact with the other kids?
  • Do they pay attention to what is going on around them?
  • Do the other children the same age seem ahead in terms of language and social skills?

Who Diagnoses Autism?

  • Developmental Pediatricians
  • Some Psychologists
  • Pediatricians with a background in autism
  • Developmental Neurologists

Of course your regular family doctor is your first stop but often family doctors are not aware of autism and don't have a clue who can give you the answers you need. Sometimes doctors will dismiss your concerns. Do not let that happen. Insist on a referral to someone qualified to make a diagnosis. BE PUSHY. The squeaky wheel always gets the grease.

Go here for a list of centres that can give you the name of a doctor in your area who can diagnose autism. Once you have a name just tell your family doctor to make a referral. This eliminates needless waiting for a specialist who will just send you somewhere else anyway.

While you're waiting:

While you're waiting to see the developmental pediatrician (because you will wait) have your child's hearing tested. The pediatrician will want it done anyway and this eliminates waiting again. Your family doctor can order that test.

Also, make an appointment to have your child's speech tested with Ontario's Preschool Speech and Language Program. Find your local program.

What causes autism?

The truth is, no one knows for sure. But research has shown that there is a very strong genetic link. Things that don't cause autism are:

  • Having a cup of coffee or glass of wine during pregnancy.
  • Vaccinations-- Lots of parents will argue with this but there is now conclusive evidence that vaccines do not cause autism.
  • You didn't smile enough or talk enough to the baby when he/she was born.
  • You were too stressed during pregnancy.

Who treats autism?

Go here for your treatment options.