Parents may miss early signs of autism

Dani Benner's 3-year old Piper has been coming to Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Marcus Autism Center since she was just two weeks old.

The Marietta mother and daughter were part of a study Benner joined when she was still pregnant with Piper.

Autism was on her mind because her oldest child, Preston, is on the spectrum.

"From the beginning, he was a very difficult baby," Benner remembers. "(There was a lot of crying."

Preston was diagnosed at 18-months, after Benner enrolled him in an eye tracking study at Marcus.

"The diagnosis, while it was hard to receive, was really a blessing," she says.  "Because we had some answers of what to do and how to fix it."

They started work almost immediately.

"He received therapy twice a day, 6 days a week, for 3 years," Benner says.

Preston, who is now in second grade and thriving, is an early-intervention success story.

But Cheryl Klaiman, Program Director for Diagnostic Services at Marcus Autism Center, worries too many at-risk kids may be falling through the cracks.

Most U.S. children are not diagnosed with autism until they're 3.

"Parents are concerned, and aware of concerns at a very young age," Klaiman says. "But, because of access to care, it just takes a long time for them to get in to be seen by a specialist in order to get a diagnosis."

Some early warning signs include problems with eye contact, lack of words, and difficulty pretending during play.

A toddler on the spectrum may not respond to his or her name, or follow a parent's gaze or pointed finger.

Benner's middle daughter Pearson does not have autism. 

But Piper started showing some warning signs at 12 months.

"She was late to talk, late to walk," her mom remembers.  "So, some of those milestones, she was missing."

The CDC now estimates 1 in 59 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder. 

A new study based on the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health puts the number closer to 1 in 40 kids.

Klaiman thinks the real number may be somewhere in between.

And Benner agrees.

"I don't think there is this 'something is going on in the water,'" she says.  "I think more and more people are being properly diagnosed."

The new study also found just over 60% of children diagnosed on the spectrum were receiving some services. 

Klaiman worries about the others.

"That's the whole thing," Klaiman says. "We can make a diagnosis, but if they don't have anywhere to get the help they need, then we're not serving those families."

After 2 years of hard work with an interventionist, ABA therapist and speech therapist, Piper recently had her 3-year old evaluation.

The Benners were told she's no longer at-risk for developing autism.

"She's doing tremendous," Dani Benner says. "I truly believe that's from the early intervention."