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What does the future hold for autistic kids?

Q: My 4-year old was just diagnosed with autism. What does the future hold for him?

A: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported an increase in the prevalence of autism, now 1 in 59.

The CDC report looked at children 8 years of age in 11 U.S. communities. These children, representing 8 percent of all 8-year-olds in the U.S., helped the CDC note that the health care community is getting better at making the diagnosis of autism in kids in our communities.

Traditionally, there is the belief that the prevalence of autism is much higher in whites compared with black and Spanish children. In this recent CDC report, the prevalence of autism in black and Spanish children seems to be catching up to that of white children. This is most likely because the diagnosis is being made more frequently, indicating significant improvement in making the diagnosis among kids of minority background.

There is also a belief that there are gaps in prevalence even among kids from different states. However, these gaps might often mean that the diagnosis is just not made on time. Kids struggle and do not get the help they need to move on. Kids with autism can often show signs of concerns as early as 2 months of age. Parents, nurseries, daycare and health care workers can be the first to note that something is different in a child. There is a right age for a child to start smiling, or wave goodbye. A child with autism might not be able to reach those milestones.

The CDC has a milestone tracker app that parents and grandparents can download for free on their mobile phones. Parents are able to track, at each age, milestones that their kids should reach, including, physical and cognitive steps, and social, emotional or communicative milestones. So if a child does not watch things move, does not smile at people, does not respond to loud sounds, or does not hold his/her head up during tummy time, it is time to talk with the child’s pediatrician. Children and adults with autism have trouble relating to others, avoid eye contact, repeat actions again and again. Sometimes, a child with autism might be interested in people, but cannot play or relate to them because of difficulties talking or language acquisition impediment.

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions that affect social interaction, behavior and communication. The scientific community does not know the cause of autism, but vaccines do not cause it. There is no cure or expensive therapy to treat autism. There is early intervention and there are medications to help kids function better. It takes a team of experts to care for a child with autism. Learning abilities and skills vary from extremely gifted to severely delayed in cognitive development. Although with limited social and communication skills, kids with autism often have IQs that are above average compared with the rest of the population.

Of note is the fact that as many as three-fourths of adults with autism are unemployed, but many of them are employable. Lately, software and artificial intelligence companies find that adults with autism can provide them with a competitive advantage. Individuals with autism often excel in computation tasks and in tasks that require a lot of attention to detail. There are kids with an autism diagnosis who excel in arts and graphic designs, while others excel in video-gaming details. One company recently reported that hires with autism at times can solve in 2-3 days computer problems that would normally take 3-6 months.

May is national mental health awareness month. We take advantage of this month to educate the public in the hope that we can get rid of stigmas that often lead to shame and silence. Diagnoses of autism or other mental health issues create a lot of anxiety and fear in our families. We use the month of May to advocate for resources, to write to our policy-makers, to advocate for research funding and even advocate for a cure. In the current era, it is hard to predict what the future holds for a child diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Parents and pediatricians are the most ardent advocates for these children, helping them access resources to become the best they can be.

Vernat Exil is a Pediatric cardiologist at UNM. Please send your questions to him at