The good news: if your child has autism or is "behind" in their development, there are things you can do to help them!
There are many different kinds of therapy for autism and in some cases medicine that can help your child get past the challenges that make it hard for them. These can reduce frustration, improve learning and support their development in many areas as they grow and change.
The best way to help your child is to start these treatments as soon as possible!
Why is it important to start right away?
Autism is related to how the brain works. Brains in young children develop very fast. They do this by forming new connections and chemical pathways, which are influenced by the child's experiences in the world. Sometimes this is called "wiring" in the brain.
Baby's brains do most of this wiring in the the first 3 years of life. Anything they are exposed to will affect this wiring. For example: language, sensory information or behavior patterns.
Therapy can help kids process sensory information, learn to communicate and use positive behaviors. The more therapy you can do in the earliest months and years, the more it will help the brain to "wire" itself, or form these pathways in a positive way. (For example, more pathways to support relationship-building.)
Research has shown that young children with autism who start getting treatment before age 2 and a half have better outcomes as they get older.
Teenagers also go through a period where their brains "re-wire". At this time they are very open to learning new things and creating new pathways.
But don't worry if you are past this point. People can learn new things at any age. The important thing is to get what treatment and services you can as soon as you can!
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As we said, early experiences can affect children's development because they affect how their brains are wired.
There's a lot of truth to the saying "Use it or lose it." If children don't have lots of chances to use their senses, use their muscles, practice positive behaviors or feel good about themselves, they can lose some of their ability to do so.
Here are some examples of this, and how therapy can help:
Babies who hear people talking to them a lot develop better language skills.
Babies who hear sounds that are specific to a certain language will be able to distinguish the sounds of that language. But if they don't hear certain sounds, they can't distinguish them. This is why people who grow up speaking Chinese, for example, have a hard time hearing the difference between an "l" or an "r" sound in English.
For this reason, it's very important that babies and children hear language as much as possible, even if it does not seem that they understand. Speech therapy at an early age can help!
- Harmful or counterproductive behaviors can get "wired" into kids' brains. An example could be chewing on their arm or having a tantrum to express frustration. But if toddlers learn positive alternatives, these habits will not get ingrained so deeply.
ABA and other behavioral therapies can help kids to learn positive behaviors by learning what motivates that child and offering incentives and positive reinforcement.
- Kids who have trouble with developmental skills learn to think of themselves as "stupid" or "bad kids". If a child does not speak or read or play sports as well their peers, the feeling can stay with them for many years. This in turn can affect their ability or motivation to learn new things.
Positive interactions with adults and helping kids to learn their strengths can build self esteem. A variety of therapies can help with this.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health
Source: National Institute of Mental Health, CDC