Back to episodes

child-health | development | newborn

Early Intervention for Autism – S1 E14

Do you know the signs of autism? Early intervention for children with autism is important to a child’s developmental growth and wellbeing. Catching those signs early could help a child get the individualized care needed to develop properly.

Christopher Smith, Ph.D. chief science officer at the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, joins host Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez to explain the importance of early detection and the signs of autism parents should watch for in their young children.

Call 602.218.8204 or email [email protected] to schedule a screening.

Podcast Resources:
Easy Access Autism Screening Program
Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center
Guest: Christopher Smith, Ph.D.
Strong Families AZ
Host: Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez
Podcast Credits:

host Host: Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez is the Program Director for the Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Arizona Department of Health Services.

host Guest: Dr. Christopher Smith is the Chief Science Officer at the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center in Phoenix, AZ.


[00:00:00] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:00:00] Welcome to The Parenting Brief. I’m your host, Jessica Stewart Gonzalez, an  Arizona working mom and Program Director for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program at the Arizona Department of Health Services. If there are parenting questions on your mind, you’ve come to the right place from pregnancy to caring for your newborn to handling the toddler years.

[00:00:27] We have tips and tricks for all parents and [00:00:30] caregivers with young children.

[00:00:39] Welcome back to another episode of The Parenting Brief one of the big themes of this show is that all parents and children are different and that there is no such thing as a one size fits all approach to parenting. Each child is unique and has different needs to help them learn. Sometimes it can be difficult to know what’s considered normal and what should receive more attention and [00:01:00] shouldn’t be brushed off early detection of any special health care need is the key to early intervention to ensure the best possible outcomes for our children.

[00:01:08] It’s why early assessments for autism are so important knowing and identifying the signs of autism and toddlers can be really difficult. How do you distinguish common toddler behaviors from the signs of autism? Why is early identification important? Everything you need to know is up next.

[00:01:30] [00:01:30] Joining

[00:01:30] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:01:30] us on this episode to talk about early intervention for kiddos with autism is Dr. Chris Smith, the Chief Science Officer at the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. I think that autism is one of the special healthcare needs that most parents can say that they have at least heard about, but may not know very much about.

[00:01:51] Can you start by helping us just understand what autism is?

[00:01:55] Dr. Chris Smith: [00:01:55] Sure. I think one of the clearest ways to think about [00:02:00] autism is to think about a developmental delay. I mean, it sounds obvious, but that’s really, I think the best way to categorize autism in general, kids with autism are developing more slowly than their typically developing peers.

[00:02:19] And when that gap and development. Gets large enough. Then what we say is that individuals experiencing a pervasive developmental delay that [00:02:30] affects that individual’s functioning and the areas of functioning that’s most commonly affected by autism is in social communication and interests and play skills.

[00:02:44] So a conglomeration of symptoms and behavior connected to those two areas. Often categorize a diagnosis of autism

[00:02:56] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:02:56] So what are some of those are early signs of autism or [00:03:00] those delays that parents should be looking for. At what age do those indicators really begin?

[00:03:05] Dr. Chris Smith: [00:03:05] Somewhere in the area of 12 to 18 months is when we know that we can reliably detect autism on screening.

[00:03:14] Yeah. And if that screening leads to a diagnosis, there are some studies, some that come from our center or collaborators of our center that show that a diagnosis as early as 14 months can remain stable throughout childhood. [00:03:30] So that’s all well and good. I mean, that’s the science behind early detection of autism, but what does that mean for parents?

[00:03:39] Right? When is it that you should be concerned? There are certain signs from typical development that suggests that that child is interacting with the environment. Well, and by environment, I mean, people and objects around them and those signs are. Solid eye contact with people that’s [00:04:00] used to communicate.

[00:04:02] So if there’s a communicated exchange with the parents, the child is making eye contact with them, and they’re also giving appropriate facial expressions like smiles and laughs and giggles and copying babbles. That the parent is doing to them. The early markings of development of a communication system, leading to the development or the onset of language.

[00:04:26] All those things are present in 12 months is [00:04:30] probably a good starting point for that information where for those behaviors to begin to emerge in kids and toddlers and infants and toddlers, I guess is the best way to say that. So, let me just talk about one more thing that I think is really important for parents to pay attention to with very young kids, right?

[00:04:50] I mean, we’ve talked about language and eye contact and facial expression, but the most important thing I think for parents to pay attention to is they should [00:05:00] feel like their child wants to be with them and is enjoying being with them. From a very early age, right? A parent is this child’s sole caregiver.

[00:05:12] This parent is meeting all of their needs and it’s not just feeding and changing. It’s they’re meeting all of their needs for interaction and attention. And so babies should really be seeking out their parents for attention. [00:05:30] And, you know, oftentimes. Look at you, depending on how many kids parents have or what their household is like times when a child is occupied by themselves and a parent can go and do other things is great.

[00:05:43] Right? I mean, parents welcome that. So a kid who’s fine occupying themselves. For long periods of time frees up that parent to do other things. And again, a parent is not going to see that as a problem, but I’m going to say that that’s a problem, [00:06:00] right? That parent, that child should be seeking that parent’s attention should be wanting to interact with that parent.

[00:06:07] They should be craving that kind of interaction with them because that’s feeding that child’s brain and allowing them to develop.

[00:06:16] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:06:16] So in identifying that, do all children, or should all children be screened for autism detection or any developmental delays, or only if there’s concerns?

[00:06:29] Dr. Chris Smith: [00:06:29] From my [00:06:30] perspective and I’ve done research on the benefits of universal screening and because catching autism early is so important for that child’s wellbeing. I believe that it should be universal screening. Now, there is some evidence out there as some literature that’s published that there isn’t enough evidence for the benefits of universal screening, but that evidence is mounting quickly.

[00:06:55] And there is definitely benefits for universal screening, but for many, [00:07:00] many families out there. Well, baby visits are luxury that they just cannot experience, right? I mean, if you have a single parent household and there’s two or three little kids, and they’re, let’s say there’s only one car in the household and we have a parents working, or the one parent at home doesn’t have a car getting those three kids to well-baby visits is an insurmountable task, and they’re just not going to be able to adhere to the standard health schedule.

[00:07:27] This is what we all want. But in reality, it’s really [00:07:30] difficult for that to happen. So that’s why we developed easy screen. And what we do is it’s a free program where parents anywhere in Arizona can pick up the phone and call us and we’ll conduct the same screening with them that they would get at their pediatrician’s office.

[00:07:48] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:07:48] In talking about that importance of that screening and then early detection,

[00:07:53] why is that early detection really important?

[00:07:57] Dr. Chris Smith: [00:07:57] So the brain has [00:08:00] neuroplasticity, right? That means that it’s most flexible and adapted to learning and acquiring new skills. That neuroplasticity is at its peak between zero and around age three. Right. There’s no hard and fast guideline that says, okay, it’s going to drop off dramatically.

[00:08:18] But I mean, we’ve, we’ve all seen typically developing kids learn and develop skills in that time period. At an extremely rapid rates, right. [00:08:30] And that’s indicative of increased neuroplasticity. Plus there have been lots of imaging studies looking at the brain and tracking neural pathway development in early childhood.

[00:08:41] And we know that the brain has a great amount of neuroplasticity in the zero to three time period. Right. So if autism is a developmental delay, That’s perhaps affecting the way that child is acquiring information from the environment. And they are in fact [00:09:00] learning and developing skills at a slower rate than what we see in typical development.

[00:09:05] Well, then it just stands to reason that if we introduce treatment during that time, of Increased neuroplasticity that that will have the greatest effect on that child’s development and long-term functioning. So it’s really critical that we identify autism as early as we possibly can and get children into treatment.

[00:09:28] During that time [00:09:30] period of increased neuroplasticity. So that’s why it’s really critical that we focus on the early developmental time period for screening and diagnosis, because these are just kind of hurdles that parents need to leap over so they can begin a treatment program. And that whole process takes time.

[00:09:46] So the earlier we get started, then the better it will be for that child.

[00:09:58] Jessica Stewart-Gonzalez: [00:09:58] Head to the show notes for [00:10:00] more information on the number to call for a screening and for more information on the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center. While you’re there, make sure to follow The Parenting Brief on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen to your favorite podcasts.

[00:10:15] And because parenting can be a bit daunting at times, share the episode with the moms, expecting parents or caregivers in your life. A little parenting help can go a long way until next time, this is Jessica. You’ve got this, Mom. [00:10:30]

Back to episodes