Preventive Care & Autism: What You Should Know
A parent’s calendar is filled with preventive care appointments. At regular intervals, children meet with their doctors for assessments, vaccines, screenings, and weight checks. Some of these preventive care visits include autism spectrum disorder (ASD) screenings.
Screenings cannot prevent autism. Researchers say genetics cause most cases of autism, and the disorder is typically present at birth.
Parents can’t see the signs until the child begins to (or fails to) hit standard behavior milestones. But there’s nothing they can or can’t do to an infant to prevent ASD.
But screening is a critical part of preventive care. Kids diagnosed early benefit from therapy, and they may face fewer developmental delays. Children with ASD may also have other health problems, and an early diagnosis ensures that doctors screen for those issues too.
Can Autism Be Prevented?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes ASD, and they continue to collect and analyze data. At the moment, most researchers agree that genes play a large role in autism. Some researchers suggest, for example, that genes account for up to 95% of autism risk.
You can’t change your genes. You’re born with a set that stays with you throughout life. If you have autism, your child has a higher risk of ASD than someone born to a family without this history.
But environmental factors can play a role , says Autism Speaks. The organization recommends avoiding the following chemicals during pregnancy:
- Mercury: Don’t eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tilefish, and large tuna. Skip skin lightening creams too.
- Lead: Postpone repainting or renovation work for the time being.
- Pesticides: Don’t use chemicals on your lawn or garden. Wash store-bought produce before you eat it.
- Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: Look for products that don’t contain bisphenol A (BPA) or phthalates. Cut back on processed and canned foods.
Keep all preventive care appointments during pregnancy, and talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about ASD. Your health care professional may have more tips and recommendations that are tailored to your health and lifestyle.
Older Children Can Be Treated
Since ASD has roots in genetics, it can’t be prevented through routine medical care. It also can’t be caused by preventive care steps.
The National Institutes of Health reports that autism signs appear in most kids by 12 to 18 months of age. These kids may:
- Avoid eye contact.
- Fail to respond to their names.
- Struggle to follow another person’s gaze.
- Display nonverbal communication deficits.
Some very young children with autism may struggle with verbal communication. Some begin to babble and repeat sounds, but they grow quieter and quieter each day until they may say nothing at all.
Sometimes, these problems coincide with a child’s early preventive care visits. Parents may draw a link between something that happened in a visit, like a vaccine, and autism development.
Remember that ASD is tied to genes and (potentially) decisions made during pregnancy. Nothing parents do or don’t do during early development leads to symptoms. But that doesn’t mean preventive care isn’t important.
Autism Screening Is Part of Preventive Care
ASD is the target of some preventive care visits for kids. The results can help parents plan ahead.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says preventive health services for young kids include everything from blood pressure screenings to body mass index measurements to vaccines. There’s a long list of services children should receive, and most care is covered by health insurance plans.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) says well-child, preventive care visits should include questions about development and behavior. Per APA, these screenings for autism should happen at these ages:
- 9 months
- 18 months
- 30 months
- 48 months
Doctors use a formal developmental screening tool to assess progress. They don’t need to take blood samples or x-rays.
Instead, they’ll administer simple tests and measure your child’s responses. They will ask you questions as well.
Why Does Screening Matter?
Families may understand the need for simple tests like blood pressure checks or vaccines, but they may struggle to understand why autism tests are necessary. If the condition can’t be prevented, what’s the point of asking so many questions?
Early detection connects your child with treatment that matters. If your child’s doctor suspects ASD, your family is referred to an early intervention program. There, your child gets targeted therapy to help them catch up to standard behavioral milestones.
Researchers say that intensive behavioral interventions can improve these abilities in a child:
- Cognitive aptitude
- Language capacity
- Adaptive skills
The earlier a child works with a therapist or technician, the better.
For example, a 5-year-old child has already adapted behaviors based on autism. That child may wail, wiggle, and struggle when presented with tasks that seem too challenging or difficult. The child can’t explain why the task is hard, so they use body language instead.
A 2-year-old child may have those same challenges. But at their young age, the child hasn’t used yelling, wiggling, or struggling very often. A therapist could step in at this point and help the child learn how to talk, point to pictures, and explain what is happening inside, so the child doesn’t experience distress and express it physically.
Therapy isn’t painful for a child with autism. To an outsider, a therapy session can look like a game or playtime. But each time the child and the technician, important lessons are taught, and skills are built.
Early Identification Improves Health
Families with autism need help understanding the disorder.
Children may also have physical challenges that add to their situation. Early ASD detection during a preventive care visit could help them get screening and treatment for those issues too.
Researchers say kids with ASD are more likely to have these issues:
- Sleep disorders
- Neurological disorders, such as headaches, movement disorders, or cerebral palsy
Discomfort from these issues can impede a child’s development. It’s hard to sit still and listen in class when your stomach hurts, or you haven’t slept well. Treatment for these underlying conditions could ease distress and help a child feel better and more comfortable.
Ongoing preventive care is critical for children with autism, so doctors can assess progress in treatment plans. Kids also need vaccines, weight checks, and all of the other services doctors recommend so they can grow to be healthy, happy adults.
Preventive Care Matters
Whether your child has autism or not, or whether you know the disorder runs in your family or not, preventive care is important. Your visits help your doctor track your child’s progress. If problems appear, treatment can start early, offering your child the best chances of improvement.
It’s tempting to skip these appointments, as there are so many of them. Remember that your child depends on you. Make preventative care visits a priority.
- Genes Dwarf Environment in Autism’s Origins, Study Says. (April 2015). Spectrum.
- Avoiding Environmental Hazards During Pregnancy. (April 2012). Autism Speaks.
- When Do Children Usually Show Symptoms of Autism? (January 2017). National Institutes of Health.
- Preventive Health Services for Young Children. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Assessing Developmental Delays . (February 2019). American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Autism Spectrum Disorder: Primary Care Principles. (December 2016). American Family Physician.
- Gaps in Care: Autism and the Pediatrician . (May 2018). Interactive Autism Network.
- Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder for Healthcare Providers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.