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Echo Press Editorial: More insights about autistic children needed

There are parents out there who have a child with autism but they don’t know it. As a result, the child is missing out on early services and support that could significantly improve the child’s future.

As part of National Autism Awareness Month this April, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) is highlighting the need for parents, providers and educators to look for the early signs and symptoms of autism.

The need for this became more apparent at the start of 2014, when a study showed that some Minnesota children with autism were not receiving the help they need during their preschool years. The University of Minnesota study found that in 2010, the average age of autism diagnosis for Minneapolis children was about 5 years old, even though autism can be diagnosed as early as age 2.

“If what was found in Minneapolis is true for the rest of the state, Minnesota is failing to provide early autism services to thousands of children,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger. “This is unacceptable. Young brains are rapidly developing during these key preschool years. We owe it to our children to take advantage of this window of opportunity to provide care that can result in life-long benefits.”

Research shows that early identification and actions such as targeted therapies and education are the most powerful tools available to help children with autism reach their full potential, according to MDH. It’s important for parents to watch for developmental milestones in relation to how their child plays, learns, speaks, acts and moves.

Some signs and symptoms of autism include:

• Saying no single words by 15 months or no two-word phrases by 24 months.

• Resisting snuggling when picked up; arching back instead.

• Making little or no eye contact.

• Rocking, spinning, swaying, twirling fingers or flapping hands.

• Not crying if in pain or not seeming to have any fear.

• Being very sensitive or not sensitive at all to smells, sounds, lights, textures and touch.

Parents with concerns should follow-up with a health professional or their school system quickly so that services for their child can start as soon as possible.

The Minneapolis study is the only population-based autism prevalence study that has been done in Minnesota. The study did not shed light on how common autism is for the whole state. In February, MDH submitted a report to the Legislature that presented options for how Minnesota could implement a statewide autism tracking system.

“Right now, Minnesota is in the dark about how many children have autism and when it is being diagnosed,” Ehlinger said. “A statewide tracking system would better help us understand the needs of autistic children and where we should direct resources.”