As a naturopathic doctor specializing in treatment and prevention of neurodevelopmental disorders; the most important thing for parents to do is to keep track of their child’s milestones. While all children hit milestones at slightly different times, it is crucial that infants, toddlers and children are gaining language, social and cognitive skills on schedule.
As a parent, you never want to believe that your child has a developmental problem but when it comes to autism, catching it early makes an incredible difference. The younger your child, the greater the impact of treatment on symptoms of autism, ADD/HD, OCD, speech delay and Tourette Syndrome.
Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. Autism symptoms appear in infancy and early childhood, causing delays in many basic areas of development such as learning to talk, make eye contact, play, and interact with others.
The signs and symptoms of autism vary widely and some autistic children have only mild impairments, while others are impacted more severely. The 3 major areas of concerns in Autism involve language, social and cognitive function. Many children with autism also have severe sensory issues.
As a parent, you are the person to watch for early signs of developmental delay. It is crucial to track milestones, to take action if you are concerned and trust your instincts. I believe strongly that the “wait and watch” approach is the worst thing to do when it comes to developmental concerns. At the first sign of delay, seek out expert advice and get a plan in place to find out what is going on and how you can help your child gain skills more quickly.
If autism or other developmental concerns are addressed in infancy there is a higher potential for the brain to heal because the brain has remarkable plasticity.
Things to watch for:
- How your child communicates verbally and non-verbally
- How your child relates to others and the world around them
- How your child thinks and behaves especially with respect to flexibly
- Does your child have a lot of tantrums?
- Are there any issues with food textures, food introduction, gagging?
- Irritability or tantrums with sensory stimuli like water, wind, different types of clothing
- Regression or loss of skills is a major flag for autism – seek medical advice immediately as loss of babbling, gesturing or eye contact should be investigated
Early signs of autism and other neurodevelopmental concerns in infancy:
- Issues with eye contact (avoidance, limited or absent). Babies should look at you when they are breastfeeding
- Babies respond to your smiles. If your baby doesn’t smile back, this may be a concern
- Responsiveness to being called by name. This increases gradually as your infant gets older. If they are not responding to their name at all, this may be a concern.
- Visual tracking is an early sign of developmental concerns. Watch carefully how your child follows objects visually
- Social gesturing is an important sign of development. If you child doesn’t wave, pointor use other gestures to communicate, it is important to see medical advice
- Babies make noises to get your attention and parents need to be concerned if this is not happening
- Some children with autism do not initiate or respond to cuddling
- The ability to imitate your movements and facial expressions is very important and if absent warrants a discussion with your MD
Seek medical help if your child is not hitting the following milestones:
- 6 months – big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions
- 9 months – back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions
- 12 months – responding to their name being called
- 12 months – babbling or “baby talk”
- 12 months – back-and-forth gestures, such as pointing, showing, reaching, or waving
- 16 months – meaningful words
- 24 months – meaningful two word phrases that don’t involve imitating or repeating
Autism is caused by genetic vulnerability combined with exposure to environmental factors like toxicity and microbes. New research is also highlighting the importance of gut health in child development. Children with autism lack a proper balance of good bacteria in the intestinal tract. Prenatal factors are also important in risk of autism.
Prenatal factors that contribute to risk of autism include:
- Taking antidepressants and seizure medication during pregnancy
- Nutrient deficiencies including folic acid and essential fatty acids
- Maternal infections during pregnancy
- Exposure to chemical pollutants, such as metals, chemicals and pesticides during pregnancy
Prevention of autism
New programs are being developed to help address prenatal factors that can contribute to developmental disorders like autism. The most important steps for parents to take include:
- Take a multi-vitamin with FOLATE or METHYL FOLATE – up to 47% of the population can’t convert folic acid to its active form
- Take a very good quality essential fatty acid during pregnancy
- Take probiotics during pregnancy to help protect against infection and to stability babies immune system
- Breastfeeding and skin to skin environment for infants
- Avoid painting or exposure to pesticides or chemicals during pregnancy
- Avoid MSG and food additives during pregnancy as it “primes” the immune system in the brain making it more susceptible to “crashing”
You do not have to have a diagnosis to help your child. Early intervention can be put in place while you are investigating what may be contributing to your child’s developmental delay.
Written by: Dr. Sonya Doherty, ND, FMAPS (Cand.)