Many children with autism don't receive a proper diagnosis until they
are in an elementary school where they may be directed to appropriate professionals
because of educational failure. Even in the case of well-informed
and resourceful parents, children with autism rarely receive a diagnosis
before they are three or four year old. That is too late. They
miss out an enormous number of opportunities for learning by that age.
Language, vision, motor skills, social skills and intellectual abilities develop at an astounding rate in the first few years. Scientist realize that there are critical ages for the development of these abilities. A developmental "window," that is, the readiness of the brain for a specific learning, is open only for a certain period. When that opportunity is missed, the learning is likely to be limited in spite of the best efforts.
To state the obvious, the earlier the diagnosis, the better is the prognosis.
However, it has not been possible to act on the obvious because we did
not have effective means of evaluating and diagnosing the condition of
autism in the first couple years of life. For example, one of the
major characteristics of autism is the inability to form relationships
with peers. It is hard to assess the ability to form peer relationships
in a toddler? We don't know to ask the right questions to parents
that can give us that information,
What you observe about babies at the clinic is also limited. Suppose you are a psychologist evaluating a two-year old and the child doesn't demonstrate a particular behavior at your request, is it because the child has not yet acquired that behavior or that he or she is just not showing it to you that day? Babies have this uncanny habit of knowing when to take a nap. At the clinic, when I am ready to observe babies, a majority of them decide to take a nap. I have a feeling that they wake up just as the leave my driveway.
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