Every child develops at a different pace, and that’s okay as long as developmental milestones are met within a certain timeframe. If you notice that your child is developing more slowly than children of the same age, is having trouble communicating with you, is avoiding eye contact, is exhibiting behavioral outbursts — or has lost previously acquired skills — talk to your pediatrician, as these are some early signs of autism in children.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder (related to the nervous system) marked by impaired social interaction and communication skills, and repetitive behaviors. It’s a “spectrum” disorder, which means symptoms and functioning can range from mild to severe.
Traditionally, the term “autism” has been used to diagnose children with symptoms on the more severe end of the spectrum, and the terms “Asperger syndrome” and “pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified” (PDD-NOS) have been used to diagnose children on the milder end of the autism spectrum.
Today, these types are collectively referred to as “autism spectrum disorder,” or ASD. This is because while all children with autism have difficulties along one or more of the same areas of development, they do not share the exact same symptoms or patterns of behavior.
Nemours Specialists Are Experts at Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children
Diagnosing children with an autism spectrum disorder is complex and requires comprehensive evaluation by experienced pediatric specialists in different medical disciplines. Early intervention is proven to significantly improve symptoms and offer your child the best chance to adapt, grow and thrive into adulthood. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor sooner, rather than later.
At Nemours, our teams of autism specialists — including psychologists and psychiatrists, child neurologists, neuropsychologists, developmental pediatricians, occupational/speech and language therapists, and applied behavior analysis therapists — provide compassionate, comprehensive autism evaluations and treatments to help your child have the brightest, most productive future possible.
For Appointments: (407) 650-7715
Hours: Monday–Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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- names and dosage of all medications, including over-the-counter medication, your child is currently taking
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- a list of prior immunizations
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Note: A parent or legal guardian must be with a child for a first visit.
Resources for Patients & Families
Nemours Children’s Hospital (NCH) in Orlando is proud to offer the region’s most comprehensive program for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Through early screening and educational training, the autism specialists at NCH are actively involved in identifying autism spectrum disorders at an early age, while teaching parents and care providers how best to help children thrive. We also help advocate for your child to receive available services in the community and in school.
As a regional referral destination, we’re uniquely experienced to evaluate, diagnose and treat autism spectrum disorders in children, from infants to adolescents. Our autism experts include a team of pediatric neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, behavior analysts, therapists (speech and language, physical and occupational) and others who work with you to give your child the best chance for success at home, at school and in the future.
Our multidisciplinary team is committed to identifying children on the autism spectrum as early as possible. In 2014, expanded funding from the State of Florida and other foundational gifts made it possible for us to have even more of an impact in the lives of Florida’s children.
The Nemours Early Autism Intervention Program provides increased autism screening on site and in the community, as well as greater access to therapists trained in applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy. Early identification and intervention is critical, because it paves the way for children on the autism spectrum to reach their full potential. The Nemours program specifically aims to:
- reduce wait time so more families in Central Florida can receive timely diagnostic evaluations and comprehensive treatment plans, regardless of their ability to pay
- train more professionals to become board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) so that more Florida children will have access to this evidence-based therapy
- provide ongoing education for primary care physicians and medical and doctoral students in the region to increase their awareness of the early signs of autism
The expanded funding will also bring mobile community screenings to families who may not have been seen by a primary care doctor, or who need additional training to help their child on the autism spectrum thrive.
Research shows that early autism screening using a simple parent questionnaire can help identify the signs of autism and other developmental disorders in children as young as 12–18 months. Through an initiative with our pediatric primary care network, our autism specialists provide local pediatricians with the tools to recognize the signs of autism so we can begin treatment as early as possible, for the best results possible.
Nemours also works with Autism Speaks and the UCF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) as a way to “meet” families in the community (mobile screenings). This helps us identify kids who haven’t been in a school setting or been identified has having developmental concerns. Our intent is to direct families to necessary services, and we’ll also direct them to relevant community agencies where they can obtain more in-depth assessment or intervention.
We believe that children with autism reach their highest potential when there’s a strong family commitment and a relationship between care providers. That’s why we offer education and training to help care providers better understand your child and the condition, and to create an environment for success. Our education efforts focus on physicians, residents and medical students.
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children in Central Florida
Diagnosing autism in children is complex and often involves comprehensive medical and neurological evaluations and observations by a team of autism specialists. There are no blood tests or imaging studies that can confirm an autism diagnosis.
Autism spectrum disorders affect the development and function of your child’s socialization, communication and behavior. Symptoms typically occur in infants and children before age three, but can also present later in childhood and the teenage years. Symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder may include:
- lack of eye contact
- language delays or speech with abnormal tone or rhythm
- no response when called
- overly preoccupied with one area of interest
- repetitive movements or words
- becomes disturbed when routines change
- prefers to play alone, retreats to his or her own world
- atypical play (may spin toys or line them up)
- may be sensitive to light, touch and sound
- stereotypical behaviors (flicking fingers, flapping hands, spinning)
Once referred to us for evaluation, whether by your pediatrician or self-referral, you and your child will come to our clinic at the Nemours Children’s Hospital to begin the diagnostic process. This includes:
- physical exam
- complete medical history (including a detailed family history)
- medical records review
- school records review
- interviews with family and others who regularly interact with your child
- cognitive and language assessment
We may also use several types of questionnaires and standardized assessments to help us get a better picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. These may include:
- Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS)
- Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)
- Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist
- Peabody Developmental Motor Scales
- Bayley Scales of Infant Development
- Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS II)
The autism specialists at Nemours Children’s Hospital work together to evaluate and treat autism spectrum disorder in children of all ages. Depending on your child’s needs, you may see one or more of the following pediatric specialists or providers:
- neurologist — a medical doctor who specializes in problems with the nervous system including developmental disorders, epilepsy and movement disorders (among other conditions related to the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles)
- psychologist — a licensed mental health professional with a doctorate degree who specializes in the study of childhood development as it relates to behaviors and emotions
- behavior analyst — a practitioner with at least a master’s degree who engages in the specific and comprehensive use of principles of learning and behavior to address skill deficits (communication, feeding, academics) and behavioral excess (tantrums, self-injurious behaviors, etc.)
- psychiatrist — a medical doctor with advanced training in diagnosing and treating mental illness. In addition to psychotherapy, child psychiatrists may prescribe medication therapy when necessary
- speech therapist — a professional with at least a master’s degree who specializes in the assessment and treatment of communication disorders
- rehabilitative therapist — physical therapists and occupational therapists who have at least a master’s degree, and who specialize in the development of gross (walking, running, jumping) and fine (smaller movements with the fingers) motor skills; occupational therapists can also address sensory processing problems
- genetics — medical doctors who study how diseases are passed down in families
- audiology/ENT — doctors and other professionals who specialize in hearing, balance and related disorders
- gastroenterology — doctors who specialize in disorders of the digestive tract
- neuro-imaging — specialists who administer various imaging tests, such as CT scans and MRIs, that can help assess the structure and function of the brain
- case manager — a professional, often a social worker, who can help you and your family solve and cope with problems and provide guidance and resource information about mental, behavioral and emotional issues
Of course, if you’re the parent or caregiver of a child with autism, you’re also a major part of your child’s care team. A diagnosis of autism affects the whole family so we’ll make sure you have the support you need to navigate your journey and become your child’s best advocate. We value your partnership every step of the way.
If your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, we might refer you for further evaluation and genetic testing. Some common conditions associated with autism in children include:
Autism Treatment for Children of All Ages
Recognizing and treating an autism spectrum disorder early on (from infancy to age three) is ideal because this is a time when critical brain development occurs. But it’s never too late to start. Many children are diagnosed on the milder end of the autism spectrum later in childhood and into adolescence, and they too will benefit significantly from medicines and therapies.
There is no one medicine or intervention that completely manages or cures autism. Just as each child with an autism spectrum disorder is different, there are many different treatments that can help reduce and manage the symptoms.
Once a diagnosis has been made, our autism specialists will offer recommendations tailored to your child’s individual needs. For example, we might recommend:
- behavior therapy — like applied behavior analysis (ABA), an accepted method that uses behavioral psychology techniques to improve your child’s language, social and behavioral skills
- psychotherapy and counseling — we use family therapy to address the needs of your child and family unit to ensure you can navigate ongoing development, including school needs
- medicines — to manage your child’s symptoms and other conditions that can occur with autism such as anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, etc.
- social skills training — we offer social skills groups to address the unique needs of this population (initiating and maintaining conversations, making eye contact, body language, etc.)
- parent training — parents are the key to a child’s progress so we try to ensure that you have training on teaching procedures and behavior plans
- speech and/or language therapy — to help your child communicate more effectively by improving conversation and social skills
- physical therapy — to strengthen your child’s physical movement and coordination
- occupational therapy — to improve fine motor skills and also help your child overcome difficulty with touch, smell, sound or movement (sensory processing)
These services are all offered on site at the hospital so that you have a one-stop place for your child’s care. However, your child’s public school and certain state and local agencies may also offer some of these services at no cost to you. Our team can help you find and advocate for services for your child. As a regional leader, we maintain strong links to many of the area’s additional respected autism resources, including:
- The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) — a state-funded program offered at several Florida sites — including the University of Central Florida — that provides support to families within the natural contexts of homes, child care programs, schools and communities.
- Howard Phillips Developmental Center — an early intervention program that sees children from birth to age three who have or are at risk for any kind of developmental delay or disability, including autism.
- Florida Institute of Technology’s Scott Center — a non-profit clinic dedicated to applying research and high-quality treatment to improve the function and quality of life of children with ASD and related disabilities.
- Autism Speaks — a leading advocacy and research organization with whom we contract.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to learning that has been used with great success with children on the autism spectrum. Its goal is to reinforce desired behaviors through a system of consistent, immediate rewards, and to decrease problem behaviors by not allowing them be effective (for example, a child will not get a toy if they throw a tantrum, but they will if they attempt to use speech). We also analyze the function of your child’s behavior. In other words, we look at why a child is doing a certain behavior and then teach a socially appropriate alternative behavior.
ABA works best when families are actively involved and able to carry over techniques to everyday life. To that end, our ABA therapists follow up with families regularly, carefully tracking the progress of treatment and tweaking the plan as necessary.
We’re also proud to be an accredited ABA training therapy site, training more and more professionals to work with the children of Central Florida.
In addition to the interventions noted above, we offer complete, specialized assessments and customization of assistive technology aids to improve communication, learning and mobility for children with autism including:
- computer-assisted writing and learning — helps children with fine motor and visual-motor impairments, learning disabilities, auditory processing disorders and more
- augmentative communication — helps children with profound challenges overcome visual, motor, positioning and mobility difficulties that may influence their ability to communicate
Autism is a lifelong condition that evolves as your child grows and matures. Our autism specialists continue to provide ongoing follow-up and care to monitor your child’s:
- medication and therapy effectiveness
- healthy growth and development
- physical and emotional wellness
Our long-term goal is simple: the help your child with autism reach his or her fullest capabilities, become as productive and independent as possible, and live a happy and healthy life.
No matter where your child receives care at Nemours, your medical team (including your primary care provider) can access your child’s medical history, test results and visit notes anytime through our award-winning electronic health record system.
You can also view parts of your child's health records, communicate with your Nemours care team, make appointments, request prescription refills and more through our MyNemours online patient portal.