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Solving the Puzzle of Autism

When Dana Hall's 18-month-old son Cameron was diagnosed with autism, the Bon Ayr, Kentucky mom felt like the floor dropped out from underneath her. "There's nothing worse than realizing that your child has a serious problem. I cried for a week," says Hall. Then she plunged into researching the disorder, and what she read gave her hope. "I found out that getting diagnosed early is one of the best things that can happen," she says. "Early intervention is key."

Many kids with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a range of developmental problems characterized by impaired communication and social interaction skills and repetitive behaviors, aren't identified until age 4  -- or later. While there's no such thing as "too late" to begin receiving treatment for autism, recent research shows that the earlier a child is identified, the more interventions such as speech therapy and behavior training are likely to help.

The disorder that's suddenly everywhere

As many as 1 in 150 kids have an ASD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In contrast, 15 years ago, the prevalence of autism was believed to be about 1 per 2,000 to 2,500. It's unclear whether the startling rise is due to benign causes  -- better detection or a broader definition of autism that includes kids with less severe versions of the disorder  -- or something in the environment. What is clear is that heredity plays a role, and since autism is a complex disorder (some kids have seizures, some allergies, some have high IQs, some low), most experts believe that different genes are affected in different kids.

Early diagnosis makes a difference

The best outcomes, experts agree, occur when kids are identified early. Parents should trust their instincts if they're concerned and be assertive about reporting any developmental red flags to their child's doctor. (See our [XREF {1599393} {Milestone Checklist}].) To get access to treatments, parents of autistic children have to be persistent.

"I encourage parents to be aggressive and to use websites like ours to connect with other families who can help," says Suzanne Wright, who with her husband cofounded Autism Speaks, a public-awareness group, after their grandson was diagnosed with the disorder.

Almost all children make progress with appropriate treatment. Although Hall's son Cameron was nonverbal when he began therapy, now, at 29 months, he can sign for things he wants and has nearly 40 words in his vocabulary. "Every day I see new changes. The therapy is helping, and every positive step gives us new hope."