Having a child showing symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be both heartbreaking and scary for a parent. About 1 in 88 children has been identified with autism, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The monumental task of coping with an ASD can easily overwhelm a parent.

Even before a diagnosis, parents can typically identify tell-tale signs that their child is exhibiting developmental challenges, sometimes as early as before their first birthday.

However, coming to terms with the reality of a diagnosis can be challenging. The life of both parent and child will be completely different after a diagnosis. While there are many treatment options that will help an autistic child learn and thrive, there is currently no cure.

Early intervention and treatment is key. But how can you be sure that your child is showing signs of autism?

Autism spectrum diagnoses are up 78% in the last 10 years – so over-diagnosis is a common fear.

“We’re dramatically overdiagnosing it in everyday behavior” read a recent Salon article by Dr. Enrico Gnaulati, a clinical psychologist specializing in childhood and adolescent therapy and assessment.

While over-diagnosis vs. under-diagnosis is a heated topic, experts do agree that diagnosing can be difficult since tests are based on behavioral and developmental issues, not a medical test. The CDC put together a list of behaviors that a child with an ASD might exhibit to help inform concerned parents.

Children with an ASD might:

  • Not respond to their name by 12 months
  • Not point at objects to show interest (an airplane flying over) by 14 months
  • Not play “pretend” games, such as feeding a doll, by 18 months
  • Avoid eye contact and want to be alone
  • Have trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings
  • Have delayed speech and language skills
  • Repeat words or phrases over and over
  • Give unrelated answers to questions
  • Get upset by minor changes
  • Have obsessive interests
  • Flap their hands, rock their body, or spin in circles
  • Have unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel

After diagnosis, there are things parents can do to help their children adjust, and develop intellectually and socially. For example, evidence suggests that early intensive behavioral treatment can immensely improve their lives.

Ennio Cipani, a licensed psychologist who provides behavioral consultations for families whose children have disabilities, presents seven compelling stories of children who have triumphed over the challenge of autism in his book, Children and Autism: Stories of Triumph and Hope.

One such story follows the progress of a young girl named Molly.

“As a very young infant, Molly screamed very often. Some days, it was almost constant. At 18 months, she could not ask for items or name common objects such as shoes or cups. But, even at that age, Molly could name numbers and letters. After a routine 18-month checkup revealed some concerns, she was evaluated for autism by Dr. Linda Copland of Kaiser Permanente.

In the waiting room for the evaluation, Molly was fascinated by a sippy cup held by another child. She showed no interest in the other child. Dr. Copland noted that at the evaluation Molly displayed fleeting eye contact, was shy, got upset when praised, resisted language tasks by covering her face or turning to her dad, could not follow directions, showed no thematic sequential play with toys, and showed no pointing to establish joint attention. The doctor also noted a lack of functional use of language, as well as the reciting of letters and numbers in a non-communicative way.”

At 20-months, Molly was diagnosed with autism. Her parents enrolled her in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is the application of a set of principles of learning and behavior that is guided by the belief that a scientific understanding of human behavior can improve the current status.

Two years after starting ABA, Molly’s mother related the following story:

“Molly had always been afraid of her Uncle Ben’s guitar and microphone. The extended family often had small “concerts” with Uncle Ben. There were many years when the family would pack up and leave to avoid a screaming tantrum from Molly. This year, Molly’s brother sang a solo.

And so did Molly.”

With the help of ABA, Molly was able to lead a happy and engaging life. Cipani’s case studies show that with the right tools, a child’s behavior can be improved. His stories offer parents hope that the best treatment and approach for their child can be discovered.