Early Diagnosis Is Key for Children With Autism

Olivia Tang was just 2 years old when she was diagnosed with autism. With the support of a Stanford Medicine Children’s Health pediatrician, she has blossomed into a thriving preschooler. Her mother, Helen Feng, shares their journey.

The Tang family had noticed that Olivia was not talking much by the time she turned 2. Olivia’s diagnosis came during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when it was challenging to find services. However, her parents, Helen and Zhenning, were able to connect with Sumit Sen, MD, a pediatrician at Bayside Medical Group.

“She wasn’t talking when she was about 2 years old. She could only say ‘Mommy,’ ‘Daddy,’ and a few words like that,” Helen said. “So, we went to Dr. Sen, and that is when he gave us the diagnosis that she has autism.”

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a condition that occurs in the brain and affects how a person communicates and interacts with others, among other symptoms.

Dr. Sen and Stanford Medicine Children’s Health follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to screen children for autism at their well visits before age 2. Dr. Sen also leads educational training seminars for parents of toddlers and preschool-aged children with autism.

According to Dr. Sen, not speaking by 18 months is one of the hallmark signals that a child has autism. But with early diagnosis, children like Olivia can find the support they need to get on track developmentally.

“If we diagnose very early, we are not that much off track. With therapy, we can get your child on track and move forward,” Dr. Sen said. “With all the appropriate therapies and the parents fully engaged, a lot of my patients start elementary school at the same level as their peers. And by their late elementary school years, they do not have the diagnosis anymore.”

Once Olivia was diagnosed, the Tang family were able to receive additional services for her without much delay.

“We started right away with all the services that we were eligible for,” Helen said. “The therapists were great; she started to get a lot of help, and we noticed that she was really learning. She was making great progress, and she started talking.”

With the help of her therapists and parental involvement, Olivia can now speak and communicate with no issues.

“She’s communicating well now, but she still needs help with social situations,” Helen shared. “Dr. Sen gave us a lot of ideas about how to work with her, like before we go to the park, we will prepare her with little social stories, so she knows what to do if a friend doesn’t want to play.”

Helen credits Dr. Sen’s attentive support with helping Olivia make so much progress. “We love Dr. Sen. He’s great,” Helen said. “He checks on us every two months, and he sends us questionnaires about her development to see if she’s on track. So, if there’s any milestone she’s missing, Dr. Sen helps us figure out how we can help her meet the goal. He gave a lot of great advice, and she’s getting better and better.”

The Tangs were able to get additional support for Olivia from their school district. “When she turned 3 years old, we had an evaluation with the school district and were able to enroll Olivia into a preschool program with an inclusive classroom,” Helen said. The preschool includes paraeducators, and Olivia has therapy while she is at school, she added.

While getting the diagnosis that Olivia has autism was difficult at first, Helen is glad now that they were proactive about getting help. She urges other parents to bring their concerns to their pediatrician.

“At the beginning, it was hard for me to admit she has autism because I felt like it was really a bad thing. But now … Olivia is healthy, she’s happy, she’s having a normal life,” Helen said.

“So, if there is any sign that your child may have autism, test right away and then get the help; it is very necessary,” Helen said. “I’m glad we got the diagnosis from Dr. Sen. She is getting all the help she needs. That’s why she can go to school and just be a normal kid.”

To learn more about ASD in children and Dr. Sen, read Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder in Young Children.

Learn more about Autism services at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health >


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