For Autism, Early Diagnosis and Treatment Yields Best Results

May 13, 2009

Two women looking at a document

Left, Rica Vizzara-Villongco, MD, consults with Susan Gottlieb, MD. Both doctors are developmental pediatricians at New York Methodist Hospital.

As the name autism spectrum disorders suggests, ASDs cover a wide range of serious developmental problems that appear in early childhood; usually before the age of three. Early signs of autism include a delay in speech or not talking or babbling at all after 12 months of age; failure to respond to name; inability to use a toy as intended; and problems starting or continuing a conversation. In some cases, a child with autism may develop normally but then lose these milestones, usually around 15 to 21 months of age.

In the past, such children may have been diagnosed with mental retardation or language delays. Today, their symptoms would fall under the autism spectrum disorders, said Rica Vizarra-Villongco, MD, a developmental pediatrician at New York Methodist Hospital.

Though symptoms and severity vary, all ASDs affect a child's ability to communicate and interact with others. With early diagnosis and treatment, most children with the one of the disorders improve in their ability to communicate, relate to others and help themselves. Susan Gottlieb, MD, a developmental pediatrician at NYM, urges parents to bring any concerns especially with language development -- to their child's general pediatrician or to a developmental pediatrician, specialists who are board-certified to diagnose and treat autism and related disorders.

The diagnosis of a development delay is frightening for parents, she said, but the earlier its addressed, the better. According to Drs Vizarra-Villongco and Gottlieb, the sooner treatment begins, the better the chance that the child can reach his or her full potential.

A child is diagnosed with autism based on clinical observation and the results of several screening tests. If the child is less than three years old, he or she is referred to an early intervention program; older children receive services through the Department of Education. At New York Methodist, we make sure that each child receives the right services for his or her specific needs, be they speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavior therapy or others, said Dr. Gottlieb.

In addition to treating development disorders, the Hospitals Department of Pediatrics also offers specialty care in numerous areas, including cardiology, adolescent medicine, hematology/oncology, pulmonology, sickle disease, and sleep disorders. New York Methodist also offers after hours care for non-emergent problems such as sore throats, earaches, colds and falls at its Park Slope Pediatrics After Hours Center, between 6 p.m and 11 p.m., Monday to Friday. At the After Hours Center, NYMs board certified pediatricians treat children from newborn to 18 years of age. For more information about pediatric specialty care at NYM, please call 718 246-8540. To schedule an appointment at the Park Slope After Hours Center, please call 718 246-8510.