Autism: How to Discern the Symptoms . . . and What to Do Next

Autism: How to Discern the Symptoms . . . and What to Do Next

Have I been living in a cave? This was the thought that went through my head when I first learned that both of my children exhibited “poor social skills and autistic-like behavior.” I had them tested at the local public school and that was their conclusion.

I felt overwhelmed, dismayed, and frightened at that time. I was a Registered Nurse and yet I had missed this. I didn’t know what to do.

That was nine years ago. Since then I have acquired a lot of knowledge about special needs and have seen tremendous changes in my children. It’s been a long journey full of hard work and perseverance, and the results have been incredibly rewarding.

The first step was recognizing the special needs my children had. Many parents with special needs children fail to recognize the signs at first. They become accustomed to their child’s behaviors and sometimes even tune them out. Some parents are in denial. It often takes an objective third party to explain to parents the extent of challenges a child has. I’d like to point out some of the more common behavioral issues that can be overlooked by parents.

Speech issues often point to another developmental need. Children who don’t develop normal speech patterns, or are delayed in speech, should be evaluated. This may be difficult to pinpoint. I didn’t notice how behind my daughter was in language development until I watched a video of my son at the same age. Clearly she was behind in speech development at age 2. That was my first clue.

Other signs in infancy are stiffness or rigidity of muscle tone, inability or unwillingness to crawl, poor eye contact, lack of tracking with the eyes, and lack of babbling. If your baby doesn’t reach a milestone at the appropriate age, I would be concerned. Often, the early symptoms aren’t caught by the pediatrician due to the relatively short amount of time he or she interacts with your baby. If you have a “feeling” something isn’t right, you need to follow up on it. Many times those nagging feelings are correct.

As a child matures, other signs such as fears, tantrums, obsessive behavior, inability to engage in play with other children, auditory processing problems, difficultly transitioning from one activity to the next, and sensory issues may be apparent. Some children will “play” by themselves for hours, lining up objects or memorizing seemingly insignificant facts. Other children will twirl an object in front of their eyes or stare at a ceiling fan. It seems like nice, quiet behavior, but it is actually a negative stimulus for the brain.

I sometimes observe other young children who exhibit these behaviors. Once you know what to look for, it becomes more obvious. For example, my son had intense fears and phobias, smell and taste issues, and was obsessed with certain objects. My daughter threw tantrums, had difficulty transitioning, and would engage in play alongside other children but not directly with them. They both had poor eye contact. Until this was pointed out to me, I didn’t really realize all the challenges they were dealing with.

At school age, learning difficulties start to appear, and your child may have trouble learning to read or write. Backwards letters, use of peripheral vision to read, inability to hold a pencil properly, pressing too hard while writing, inability to memorize facts, inability to read or do math problems unless moving at the same time—all of these are symptoms of a disorganized brain. Unfortunately, many children aren’t diagnosed until it becomes very obvious that something isn’t quite right.

If you observe these or other problems, you may wonder, “What do I do about it?” The next step is to have your child tested or assessed. The earlier this is done, the sooner a remedial program can be developed for your child. Intervention can begin at any age, because the brain has an incredible ability to adapt and change.

There are several ways to approach testing; the public school system, private therapists, and neurodevelopmentalists are some of your options. Each offers a different approach to the issues a child exhibits. I started with the public school system because it was a free resource that could give me an idea of what I was dealing with. The drawbacks to this approach were the labeling and lack of proper therapy. The public school professionals focused on the negative behavior my children exhibited and offered no real solutions to their problems. The school district’s solution was to place them in a special day class with children of all ages at various levels of need. I knew that for my children, one-on-one intervention would be optimum and they would not do well in such an environment.

The labeling by the school district also bothered me. I felt that my children would be defined by their labels, and I didn’t want that to influence their future. I wasn’t going to accept the limitations determined by a “label.” I wanted to focus on what needed to be changed and help them reach their potential. I wasn’t going to find the help I needed from my local school system, so I ended up opting out of their educational plan and chose to homeschool. I decided to use other avenues for therapy.

I asked a private speech therapist to work with my children. She was quite familiar with autistic behavior and was able to work on their social skills, as well as speech issues. I saw some improvements in their behavior and it went well. It is often difficult to find someone who is willing to work in a private setting, especially in a rural area. I was blessed to find someone who was both skilled and available. However, as my children grew older, I realized that their current therapy, which had served us well, had become inadequate.

There were issues and problems that needed attention, and I was unsure where to turn. I did a lot of praying. I then heard about the neurodevelopmental approach from an acquaintance. I researched this therapy and found it to offer a refreshing perspective. This approach does not focus on labels and limits of the child. Instead, it makes use of specific stimulation given in appropriate frequency, intensity, and duration to alter the brain’s neural pathways. They focus on the positive and use a Godly approach to special needs, which brings about real changes that address the root of the problem.

Neurodevelopmentalists administer thorough assessments to identify the areas in which your child needs help and then write an individualized program that is parent-run. Basically, they teach you how to help your child. They offered hope to my children and me.

Many neurodevelopmentalists across the country can get you started with testing and therapy. The International Christian Association of Neurodevelopmentalists has a website that lists practicing neurodevelopmentalists ( This website also provides several articles that further explain this type of therapy and the benefits for your child.

Our neurodevelopmentalist, Marilee Coots, operates primarily out of California. She is part of the ICAN organization and has a website: Her services were tremendously helpful to us. She provided a lot of encouragement and support. She really was an answer to prayer.

You will need prayer and support. This is a time-intensive and parent-run program. You will be busy as you implement all the activities your child needs. My days were very full, and I had to be organized to get everything done. The program was set up for five days a week, two sessions per day. The exercises lasted 2–3 minutes each and stimulated various areas of the brain. Exercises included crawls, eye movement, taste and smell activities, reading, math, sensory input, and memory games. We had special tools, such as pinhole goggles and glasses that were worn during certain activities.

In addition, we used sound therapy, called Samonas, which required the use of specialized CDs and headphones. The children also had to wear eye patches and earplugs for a determined amount of time each day. I was given a checklist of activities to carry out with each child, and I was to do all of those activities Monday through Friday.

Sessions with a neurodevelopmentalist cost approximately $450 a session. We saw our neurodevelopmentalist every sixteen weeks. At each appointment, she would reassess the children and write a new program for us to implement. The program lasted three years for both of my children.

Was it difficult? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely! My children could never have reached their potential without this intervention. I highly recommend it for anyone who is struggling with learning or behavioral issues. The results were well worth all the time, energy, and resources our family put into the program.

It is always our prayer to do the best for our children. Seek the Lord’s wisdom on how to best approach your child’s needs. He is always faithful to provide. He always answers our prayers. We were created in His image, and He has a plan and a purpose for each one of us.

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, Summer 2011.

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