Autism is a complicated developmental disorder. It's called Autism Spectrum Disorder because the symptoms and the severity of the condition can vary greatly. Most commonly, autism affects a person's ability to correctly process emotions, language and senses.
It is estimated that one out of every 110 kids in America will be diagnosed with autism. No one is certain what causes the disorder, and the subject is hotly debated across the country. Currently, there is no cure for it.
Autism is usually diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 6 years old, but symptoms often surface much earlier. That's why it's so important for parents to know what milestones to watch for in their infant and toddler.
Autism Warning Signs
Pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears explains the warning signs of autism, often seen in kids before the age of 3 and many times by 12 to 18 months old:
• Changes in social interaction and lack of social engagement
• Lack of eye contact
• Appearing to be in his or her own world
• Displaying no interest in other children playing
• Showing no attachment to parents
• Unaware of the environment and other people
• Changes in verbal skills: either doesn’t learn to talk or regresses and stops talking
• Repetitive behaviors: hand flapping, staring at ceiling fans, spinning or rocking, lining up toy cars or other objects
• Lack of pretend play
• Inability to point with index finger
• Regression or loss of skills at any time
Get a complete list of autism warning signs from the CDC.
Your child should begin to make eye contact with you as an infant and respond to you with a smile around 3 months old. If by 5 months old, your child is not smiling or he or she dislikes peek-a-boo from 6 to 9 months, talk to your pediatrician. Not every child is talking by their first birthday, but a typical 12-month-old says at least "mama" and "dada," and can point with their index finger. If your child seems unresponsive, or at any time loses a skill, that's a warning sign. Repetitive behaviors, spinning or rocking may also indicate autism.
If your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, seek the advice of your doctor.
"Brains can heal if aggressive treatment is done early," Dr. Sears says.
Research by the University of Washington shows that an autistic child's IQ, language ability and social interaction skills can be improved if the disease is detected early. Treatments for autism, some of which can begin as early as 18 months of age, include applied behavior analysis, hyperbaric chambers and working with animals.
Dan and Lori have seven children, and four of them are autistic. Their oldest son, Mitchell, 10, easily becomes anxious and emotional. Alex, 9, wears Halloween costumes every day and exhibits destructive tendencies in the home. Their oldest daughter, Danielle, 8, is starting to talk more, but rarely interacts with other children. Adam, 6, is the most severely affected. He has no verbalization and oftentimes hits and kicks his parents and pushes his siblings. His tantrums have become so intense that he has even been hospitalized.
“It’s like I failed the kids somehow,” Dan says.
One of the most difficult things for Dan and Lori to manage with autistic children is discipline. “It’s hard for them to realize that what they did is wrong,” Lori says.
E.R. physician Dr. Travis Stork asks Dan and Lori, “How do you manage?”
“It’s a day-by-day thing,” Lori says. “We do see progress with the kids. That is great. We do see things work, and that’s what keeps us going.”
Dr. Sears explains that doctors still don’t know why children develop the disability. He asks the couple to describe some of the early symptoms they observed in their children.
Dan says some of the kids did not exhibit speech, were staring off and were not able to effectively communicate.
“They don’t run to you with a toy and ask you to interact with them,” Lori says. “Not only did they not develop speech, speech stopped.” She adds that their daughter used to be a happy, bubbly baby, but her disposition changed, and she would sit in the corner and ignore others. “There were definite personality changes.”
“A lot of these behaviors are kind of typical in ‘typical kids,’ too,” Dr. Sears says. “That’s sometimes the confusing thing.” Autism affects each child differently.
Dan and Lori worry about their son, Eric, who is not autistic. They don’t know how to prevent him from modeling behaviors after his older siblings, when that’s all that he sees.
Dr. Sears explains that he will learn by watching his parents, other kids at school and friends.
The parents ask Dr. Sears when they should tell their younger children that their older siblings have autism.
“Tell them right now. They’re living it,” Dr. Sears says. He assures the couple that their younger children will understand.
Lori is pregnant again and worries for the fate of her unborn child.
“Over the years, we’ve learned that there definitely is a genetic factor here,” Dr. Sears says. “There is something in the genes of your kids that make them a little vulnerable to a trigger. We still don’t know what that trigger is.” He offers that triggers could be viruses, heavy metals like lead or other chemicals. “There are a lot of theories.”
Pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon, who strongly believes that vaccines are a major contributing factor in autism, joins the discussion. “Vaccines, as they are now formulated, can cause autism and other problems,” Dr. Gordon says. “Right now, they’re not as safe as they can be.” He advises that Dan and Lori do not vaccinate their unborn child. “You have a genetic, a familial, predisposition to children developing autism,” he tells them. “All children who get vaccines don’t get autism. All children with autism are not autistic because of vaccines.”
Dr. Gordon suggests that before parents vaccinate their children, they should educate themselves, find a doctor they trust, and look at their family history for autism, childhood depression and autoimmune diseases. “The very serious neuroimmunologists are now saying that autism is a neuro-immune disorder,” he says. “I really think that it doesn’t make any sense to give five or six shots to a little baby whose immune system and central nervous system are still a little bit questionable and extremely immature. Wait six months, wait a year. Get counsel. Read as much as you can. But the way that vaccines are manufactured can cause autism. The way that they’re administered can cause autism, and they should be much, much safer.”
On the other side of the debate is Dr. Harvey Karp, who agrees with the many studies that show zero association between vaccines and autism. “If you stop immunizing children, especially in the first year or two, you’re putting them at risk,” he says. “Vaccines are a miracle.” He adds that studies performed in other countries show that when the rate of immunizations go down, the rate of illnesses go up.
Dr. Gordon disagrees. “The studies were not done well. The studies were often funded by the manufacturers of the vaccine,” he refutes. “I don’t vaccinate against any illnesses that pose anywhere near as much a threat to your family as autism does. I admit that if we stop giving certain vaccines, some illnesses might return. I admit that there’s no proof that vaccines cause autism. There’s evidence.” He is adamant that more testing needs to be completed.
Dr. Karp tells Dr. Gordon that he must back his claims with scientific proof. “The only reason we have little disease right now is because so many people are getting their kids immunized,” he says. “If more and more people follow the advice that [Dr. Gordon’s] giving — to defer these vaccines — and we see more illness, the children who are going to suffer are not so much the ones who choose not to get the immunizations, but the next-door neighbor and the kids in the preschool, who then spread the illness back to little babies who are not even old enough to get the immunizations yet.”
Dr. Sears weighs in. “I do not want everybody to stop vaccinating, because then we’re going to see polio come back, and kids are going to start dying of measles again,” he says. “In my office, I try to look at each child individually. I want to get them eventually fully vaccinated, unless they have a lot of risk factors for autism.” He looks at Dan and Lori and tells them, “If your family was in my practice, there’s no way I would vaccinate your kids, but I would also talk to you about how to minimize your risks of catching those important illnesses.” He adds that the vaccine companies have taken mercury out of most of childhood vaccines — a metal people think contributes to developing autism. “I encourage my patients not to blow off vaccines, but I want to do it as safely as I can,” Dr. Sears says, explaining that he starts children at 2 months with the important vaccinations like whooping cough and meningitis, but he only gives one or two at a time. “Some of the more controversial ones, we wait until later,” he says.
Dr. Travis concludes, “Most physicians support vaccination, and we don’t want to go back to a time where when someone comes into the hospital, we’re worried about all of these diseases that have pretty much been wiped out of our children.”
Raising an Autistic Child
When doctors told former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete and his wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete, that their son RJ had autism, their lives changed forever. "Not only did we get the news, we got, 'He will never look you in the eye. He will never come up and say, "I love you." He will never mainstream in school. He will never play organized sports. He may never live on his own, so these are the things that you need to get ready for,'" Rodney says. "And our son was 3."
Rodney and Holly didn't know what autism was and became frustrated with the lack of information about raising an autistic child. "We didn't have any experience with autism, so to give us information like that, we needed more. We needed a fix," Holly says. "Let us know what to do now. OK, this is what he has, how do we fix it? And there wasn't that information."
Holly and Rodney, along with their family, worked hard to overcome the challenges that RJ and their family faced. RJ, now 12, was receptive to the treatments and therapies he received and has beaten the odds. He now plays piano and team sports, and goes to a mainstream school. "We want to give a message of hope, and acceptance and love for how beautiful and special these children are," Holly says. "These are beautiful children, and they are valuable to society."
"We don't want to see these kids be put in a box and [say], 'This is who they are. This is what they're going to be for the rest of their lives," Rodney adds. "To put these kids in a box at such an early age is something that can't happen."
The Peetes founded the HollyRod Foundation in 1997, in honor of Holly's father, Matthew T. Robinson, Jr., who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, to help improve the quality of life of those battling the illness. After RJ's diagnosis, the foundation expanded to help families affected by autism afford treatment and care.
Katie Price is one of the world’s most popular reality stars from her days on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, but she is also a mother of three, including a disabled son. Harvey, 6, was born with multiple disabilities, including septo-optic dysplasia, hormone growth deficiency and diabetes insipidus, and is also on the autism spectrum.
Septo-optic dysplasia is a rare disorder which is characterized by abnormal development of the optic disk, the pituitary gland, which is the gland that produces hormones, and the optic nerve, which supplies the signals from your vision to your brain. The condition has caused Harvey to have vision and growth-hormone deficiencies.
“I didn’t know when he was born that he had a condition,” Katie says. “He was actually born blind, but I didn’t know he was blind until after about six weeks. I just thought, oh God, what do I do here, because, what do you do? You just don’t know what to say. I thought, I’m not going to sit here and cry about it; I’ve got to deal with it, because I was a single parent. Luckily, I’ve got a good family around, so the journey started there.
“But I don’t ask for sympathy, at all,” Katie continues. “Just because I have a child like that doesn’t mean I ask for sympathy, because he was my first child, and to me, that’s normal. What I mean is I was only used to dealing with a child with disabilities, so when I had a child who didn’t have disabilities, I found that odd.
“People should not be ashamed, and I really want to put that point across. You should not be ashamed if you have a disabled child,” she says. “My opinion is, it is so easy to put your disabled child in care. That is the cheap, sad way out. It’s your child. You have your child at home, you deal with it. I don’t like it when people put them in homes, hide them away. I don’t agree with that at all.”
Removing Environmental Toxins
Dr. Jerry Kartzinel works on biomedical treatments for autism. The treatment includes removing toxins from the environment, increasing certain nutrients and eliminating certain foods by moving to a gluten-free, casein-free (GFCF) diet.
“It sounds like we’re treating autism, but we’re treating the complications of autism,” Dr. Kartzinel says. “I don’t treat autism, but if you have a child, for example, who does not process dairy well – either they’re lactose intolerant or the proteins get messed up and it acts like a morphine in their system – we’re saying, ‘This food doesn’t process well in your body. Let’s remove it.’ We do that for lactose-intolerant people. We remove gluten-containing foods for our celiac disease patients; why wouldn’t we say, ‘Hey, I wonder if we can do some testing to validate this conclusion?’ and we can. And we remove the dairy from their diet, we remove the gluten from their diet, and all of a sudden, the children may be able to sleep through the night! Sleepless nights, that’s a problem we can take care of.
“I look at each symptom, what the child presents with,” Dr. Kartzinel adds. “If they’re having problems with constipation, if they’re having problems with chronic diarrhea, if they have a laboratory test that tells me they’re making morphines from these particular food groups, or if I do an allergy test, and it tells me they have allergies from these particular foods, then you bet I’m going to pull them out.”
The change in diet does not work for every child, Dr. Kartzinel says, but he has had success with those where the dairy or gluten were the problems that trigger the symptoms. Some doctors do not believe the diet has been proven to help, however.
“The problem is these doctors are not in my clinic,” Dr. Kartzinel says. “They are not following me for a week or two in the clinic. They’re not watching. They don’t come to the clinics and see. They’re quick to make judgments about what we’re doing can’t possibly be working, and they’ll say, ‘There are just no studies,’ and yet the next family that comes in, [will say, 'For] my son the diarrhea went away.' ... Why aren’t they talking to us?”
“We talk on the show every single day about living as pure of a life as you can, eating healthy, natural foods,” Dr. Travis says. “And we talk all the time about environmental toxins on this show. Whether you have symptoms of autism, or whether or not you’re a completely healthy person, removing environmental toxins is a good thing.”
Autism Q&A with Dr. Jerry Kartzinel
• Tyler asks how to help ease their 4-year-old son, Ashton’s, sensitivity to light and noise.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Watch Dr. Kartzinel’s answer to Tyler’s question!
• Krista’s 4-year-old son, Brian, is autistic. She says he is always sick and asks if that is due to a low immune system or something in his diet.
“My first thought, that I’ve been finding, is that when you have a child who’s sick all the time, what do we do? We do an immune-system workup,” Dr. Kartzinel says. “Another thing that can look like being sick all the time are allergies. [If] they’ve got the runny nose all the time, and they’re coughing all of the time, dark circles under the eyes — house-dust mites, things that you don’t think about, [could cause it].”
• Jennifer asks about the effectiveness of hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and how it can help her 5-year-old son, Alexander, and other children with autism.
“Hyperbarics have been around for a long time,” Dr. Kartzinel says. “You’re in a container with increased pressure — we call that atmospheric pressure — and you actually increase the amount of oxygen being delivered. It’s used for a whole bunch of things. Some things are approved uses, like wound infections and diabetic wound, but we’re using it for our kids with autism, because they’ve actually done studies in the late ‘90s and early 2000s that clearly demonstrate that children and adults with autism have decreased blood flow to both sides of the brain.
“We were thinking that if they have decreased blood flow, I wonder if they increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, if we can help these kids,” he continues. “And sure enough, studies now are showing that it can actually help the kids sleep better, they have more language, they have more presence. The parents tell me that they seem to be more with it. So it seems to be a good tool in the toolbox. That’s not the fix, but it is taking care of one thing that we notice.”
Areva Martin, award-winning attorney, author of The Everyday Advocate: How to Stand Up for Your Child with Autism and mother of an autistic son, joins The Doctors to discuss the importance of being an advocate for children with special needs.
Areva's son, Marty, now 11 years old, was diagnosed with autism when he was 2. "It was very devastating for me and my husband," she says. "What really bothered us the most was that we didn't know what to do. We didn't know where to get information. We didn't know how to navigate the systems. It became very clear to me that I needed a roadmap, so what I did with The Everyday Advocate was take all the information I learned as a parent, working with parents through my nonprofit Special Needs Network and parents whom I work with through my law firm, and I gave parents a roadmap, so you don't have to worry, you don't have to guess. You know what to expect and how to navigate and get the best services for your child.
"You don't have to be a lawyer to be an advocate," Areva adds. "Anyone can be an advocate."
Children with autism or other special needs are sometimes segregated from other students at school, but Areva vehemently opposes this practice. "It is not OK to segregate kids with special needs. It's not OK to separate them from their typical peers," she says. "You can use some other measures. These are children. These aren't animals, and they have basic human rights, and you need to know your legal rights.
"My son, Marty, ever since he was in kindergarten, he's been in a typical class, mainstream with his typical peers," she adds. "He has an assistant with him, but those kids provide modeling opportunities for him. I say that all children with special needs can benefit from being around other kids."
Autism Awareness and Legislation
Meredith and Ralph have three children, 11-year-old twins Nathan and Tyler, and 9-year-old Allison. Nathan and Allison both have autism. "There is no one way of doing things with autism," Ralph says. "You have to just really get involved and find what works best for your child."
Treatments for autistic children can be expensive, and many states don't require insurance companies to provide coverage for the disease. Ralph co-founded the Autism Coalition of Nevada and fought to help make Nevada the 11th state in the U.S. to mandate insurance coverage for evidence-based therapies and medically necessary care for autism. The law went into effect in January 2011. "We want all 50 states [to mandate insurance coverage for autism]," Ralph says. "This is a medical emergency. How can this not be covered by insurance, and how can these families have to struggle to pay for treatments?"
"I'm so glad you did that," Dr. Sears says. "Not too long ago, pretty much the only covered treatments [for autism] were tranquilizing drugs or institutions. Everything else, parents would have to [pay for] out of pocket."
Steve Mauldin founded Stephanie's Day 10 years ago, in honor of his daughter, Stephanie, who has autism. The event offers a fun environment for kids and provides a wealth of services and information for parents with autistic children.
Meet Nao, a robot providing a revolutionary treatment for autistic children. Manufactured by Aldebaran Robotics in France, the small robot is capable of autonomic movement, face and voice recognition and is equipped with extensive programming to support and facilitate social interaction.
The Nao robot provides predictable and repetitive behaviors, which in turn, improves a child’s social interaction skills with people.
Cedric Vaudel, manager of Aldebaran Robotics, says the Nao robot can understand its environment, pick itself up, negotiate its way around objects and is capable of advanced functionality. “Everything is possible, it’s just a matter of imagination.”
Check out Nao’s moves!
Medical Marijuana for Autism
Mieko says her 10-year-old son, Joey, was diagnosed with autism when he was 16 months old. By age 5, Joey's behavior was destructive and aggressive, and despite trying 13 different medications, Joey's condition was going from bad to worse.
"Because of his autism, Joey was very particular about the foods he would eat and was literally starving to death in front of our eyes," recalls Dr. Rebecca Hedrick, Joey's psychiatrist at UC Irvine.
Desperate for a solution to save her son, Meiko turned to medical marijuana, a controversial remedy not often associated with children. Under a doctor's care, she began treating Joey with medical marijuana.
The chemical in marijuana, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), can stimulate appetite. The use of medical marijuana as a treatment option for children is considered controversial due to the inherent nature of the drug and minimal research available.
However, the results of Joey's treatment are promising. Not only has Joey doubled his weight, he is responsive and socially engaged. "Joey has had an awakening," his mother reports. "That is truly what has happened to my son. I lost him at 16 months. When he was saying ‘Mom,' I feel like I have my son back."
"After starting to use the medical marijuana, he interacts with us," Dr. Hedrick adds. "We don't have any medications right now that treat autism. We have two FDA-approved medications that treat the irritability side effect of autism, but nothing that treats this disinterest in personal relationships."
Dr. Stephen Hinshaw from the University of California at Berkeley calls in, and he, The Doctors and Dr. Hedrick all agree that Joey's progress is encouraging, and that medical marijuana as a treatment for children with autism warrants further research.
Learn more about the unconventional treatment for autism.