Sheila Wagner earned her undergraduate education degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a master's degree in education from Georgia State University. A former special education teacher, Wagner is currently an assistant director of the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta and program coordinator for the MONARCH School Program (K-12). She is also project director for a multi-county inclusion project affecting more than 600 students with autism spectrum disorders. She is a nationally recognized consultant on educating students with autism spectrum disorders.
Q: Is it true that early identification and therapy for autism can make a difference in how well a child copes with the disorder? What is the earliest age a parent should start to worry?
A: Early intervention and intensive therapy for autism can make a huge difference in how well children are able to shape their language so they can speak, interact and play with other children and socially connect with family and friends. Intervention at any age, though, regardless of how old people are, can make a difference in their lives by teaching them new and better skills.
The typical age for diagnosing autism is 4 to 5; with Asperger's, it is older. It is possible to diagnose autism at age 2, but not everyone feels comfortable applying a label that young. But if a child is starting to develop along atypical lines, the situation should be addressed as soon as possible.
Whether a child is meeting early language milestones is one part of diagnosing autism. Parents and professionals should note if a child is babbling on time and saying first words and phrases on time, and they should watch how the child is using gestures. If a child is not doing that level of communicating on time, is not making requests for food, play and hugs and is not socially connecting with the parents, then some assessments should be done to see if the child is on track developmentally.
Q: People now refer to a spectrum of autism. What does that mean?
A: Autism is under the umbrella term "pervasive developmental disorders," which has five subcategories. The ones considered to be the "autism spectrum" are autism, Asperger's and "pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified."
Although two children might both meet criteria for an autism diagnosis, they might not resemble each other at all. They will most likely have met different criteria and have very different profiles. The spectrum ranges from very mild to quite severe, so there really are no two individuals with this disorder who are exactly alike. They will have strengths and challenges in different areas. It's not a cookie-cutter diagnosis.