Thursday, April 12, 2012

10 Tips for Maximizing Parent-Teacher Conferences

Parent-teacher conferences. Those three words make many parents nervous. It's understandable: Parents fear hearing the worst about their child's progress and performance, and teachers can sometimes be intimidating. Here are ten strategies to help you rid yourself of any preconference anxiety and make the meeting a productive step toward your child's education.
1. Come on time, and don't stay past your allotted time.The teacher has all the other parents to meet with in tightly scheduled time blocks. If you are late, your session may be shortened. Consider this conference the first installment in your ongoing contact with the teacher.
2. Make a list of things you want to discuss with the teacher, and number your list from most to least important so that you cover the more pressing topics first. If you rely on your memory, you may forget what you planned to say. Take along your child's homework or report card to document your concerns.
3. Introduce yourself and begin with a smile and a genuine compliment; don't assume the teacher knows who you are. A smile will set both your minds at ease. You may not realize that teachers are often just as nervous as you are about conferences! So find something nice to say about the classroom environment or a special subject your child talks about. For example, "Hi, I'm Tina's mother and she's been telling me how much she loves the science experiments you do in class."
4. Look the teacher in the eye and be ready to listen. Let him direct the conversation; the information he shares may answer some of your questions. Be sure to ask the teacher to explain anything you don't understand, especially if he begins using educational jargon that's not familiar to you. Remember, if the teacher is talking about a topic on your list but you still have a question, now is the time to ask it. Take a pen and paper along to jot down things to tell your child or spouse later.
5. Be positive and ask objective questions. Beginning with a complaint will probably close the doors to helpful communication between you and the teacher. But it can be tricky to ask questions without seeming to pick a fight. Here are some questions to consider:
  • How would you describe my child's academic progress?
  • Does my child behave in school?
  • What are my child's work habits?
  • How does my child get along with the other children?
  • How much homework will my child receive each week?
  • How much should I be helping my child with her homework?
Then, be ready to plan with the teacher some ways for your child to be more successful in school. Don't assume the teacher has all the answers. You might suggest, "We can turn the TV off for 45 minutes every night if that's how long you think Jason's homework will take."
6. Expect to hear about your child's problem areas. A good teacher will summarize a child's strengths before describing problems. But with limited time to talk and in hopes that you can help your child at home, many teachers immediately focus on a child's weaknesses. Don't be defensive, but try to determine if or how your child may be different at home  -- and let the teacher know. If the teacher says that your child doesn't work well in a group, you might say, "In Boy Scouts, David loves working with other boys to earn badges." Then, you and the teacher have some information to explore together. What's the purpose of the group, and who else besides your child is in it? Perhaps the groups need to rotate more often, or your child needs clearer expectations for his work.
7. Ask for handouts. Good teachers know how to save time in a conference, and they also know not to send you home empty-handed. They often have curriculum materials prepared for you to read. Keep them to refer to during the year  -- they can answer questions that may occur to you later about classroom policies, the social-studies curriculum, or events such as field trips. The teacher's telephone number and/or e-mail address may also be included.
8. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet with your child's teacher early in the year. At the conference, give her your telephone number and the best times to reach you, or perhaps your e-mail address. In fact, sending occasional notes during the year keeps you in touch with the teacher and shows that you care about your child's education. Most teachers appreciate the contact with parents and may even write back. Once you've met the teacher face-to-face, telephone and e-mail contact is easier and can yield better results. But be sure you don't become a nuisance to the teacher or take over your child's responsibilities. Ultimately, it is your child's job to know what the homework is and when the tests are.
9. Volunteer to share your skills in the classroom. Even if you work or have a busy schedule, don't assume that you have nothing to bring to the classroom. There are many ways for parents to be involved:
  • Be a guest speaker or find one. You can easily talk about your own job or a hobby; or you may know someone interesting who can speak to the class about a relevant topic.
  • Invite the class to visit your place of work. If you work in a store, let them come see how the business is run. If you work in a hospital, give them a tour of the pediatrics ward.
  • Offer to chaperone the class on a field trip. If you work, take a day or half-day of vacation. You'll enjoy it  -- and you'll get a chance to see your child in a whole new light.
  • Help with the class newsletter. If you are a working parent, share the job with a committee so that you have do it only once or twice a year. (And let your child help, too!)
  • Be an at-home tutor. If your child needs tutoring in reading and your friend's child needs math help, swap kids for one or two hours a week. A child often learns better with someone other than a parent, and parents have different strengths to share.
  • Send ethnic foods to the classroom. Prepare something that is special to your family  -- egg rolls, blintzes, or baklava  -- or, let your child bring in an unusual vegetable or fruit for a holiday celebration or to fit a special unit of study.
10. End with a thank-you. Instead of rehashing your concerns or your child's problems, thank the teacher for her time and conclude with a genuine pledge of support. You may want to say something like, "Now that I understand the things you're doing in the classroom, I'll be able to help more at home. I know we both have my child's best interests at heart, and I want to work with you to help him succeed." Ending the conference on a positive note leaves you both feeling that you are partners in helping your child learn and succeed in school.

Monday, April 9, 2012

EdWeekly: "Potential Benefits for Education Startups Seen in U.S. Bill"

Congress last week passed a bill that makes it easier for startup companies to raise capital and go public, two oft-cited barriers for new ventures looking to enter the education market.
After passing in the Senate March 22, the Jump-Start Our Business Start-Ups, or JOBS ACT received final approval from the House of Representatives on March 28 and, as of press time, was expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The legislation, a rare example of conflict-free, bipartisan congressional support, is a composite of several smaller bills but puts forward two main initiatives aimed at helping startup companies grow faster:
• The measure would establish a new form of company financing called "crowd funding." Companies would be able to raise up to $1 million by selling small numbers of shares to a large number of buyers through several mediums, including the Internet. It's been compared with the social-financing website Kickstarter, where projects are introduced with development and financing goals and users can donate money to help the projects become realized. (Kickstarter, however, does not offer actual stake in the projects and companies being funded.)
Key Features of the Bill
• The bill establishes a new form of company financing called “crowd funding.” Companies could raise up to $1 million by selling small numbers of shares to a large number of buyers, through several mediums including the Internet.
• It allows companies that earn less than $1 billion in revenue to bypass certain financial reporting requirements in the five years after filing for an Initial Public Offering, or IPO. For instance, those companies won’t have to conduct an external audit of their internal controls and only have to disclose two years of previous financial information rather than three.
• The bill’s intent is to spur growth of younger companies, with the idea of creating more jobs. Companies with less investor-friendly ideas could raise money more easily through the crowd-funding route, as well.
• The JOBS Act also would allow companies that earn less than $1 billion in revenue to bypass certain financial-reporting requirements in the five years after filing for an initial public offering, or IPO. Those companies would not have to conduct an external audit of their internal controls and only would have to disclose two years of previous financial information rather than three.
One of the main reasons the education industry has been slow to embrace entrepreneurs as quickly as other sectors is the difficulty in raising capital in a highly regulated field skeptical of for-profit involvement. There are also few publicly traded companies in education, in part because of the difficulty of addressing both investors' and students' needs. The new legislation could put a dent in both of those barriers, though field experts expect the crowd-funding to have a larger impact.
"In K-12, it's a hard place to raise capital, and a lot of the entrepreneurs are raising less than $1 million anyways," said Adam J. Newman, a founding and managing partner of Education Growth Advisors, an education business advisory firm in Stamford, Conn. "It certainly creates a way for more dollars to come in."

A 'New Resource'

Formal and informal mechanisms are already in place for early-stage companies to raise money. In education, the NewSchools Venture Fund, based in San Francisco, for instance, invests in companies that may be too risky for venture capitalists. It is financed by a wide range of private donors. The organization recently announced the creation of an educational technology seed fund that aims to help ed-tech startups find early-stage funding.
For example, three years ago, NewSchools invested in BetterLesson, a Boston-based company that allows educators to use the Web to share and catalog lesson plans, after NewSchools recognized the need for such a tool in the education community. BetterLesson is quickly gaining traction among educators and, although NewSchools continues to contribute funding to the company, in its latest round of funding last August, most investments came from elsewhere, including traditional venture-capital firms.
The nebulous "friends and family" donation is another staple for early-stage startup companies. Those investments could be emboldened or even replaced by the crowd-funding initiative, said Steve Pines, the executive director of the Education Industry Association.
"It could represent an important new resource, particularly for the startups who don't have the rich uncle," said Mr. Pines, whose nonprofit organization is based in Vienna, Va., and helps education entrepreneurs connect with the K-12 market.
Though he doesn't think the JOBS Act would have a large effect on education startups, Tom Vander Ark, a managing partner of education venture firm Learn-Capital, in San Mateo, Calif., said the crowd-funding measure is conducive to companies "that advance social and return-seeking agendas," like those in education. People are more willing to invest small amounts in a company with less earning potential if it is helping education, he said.
Mr. Vander Ark said a more successful way to spur startup investments through federal legislation would be to open some of the U.S. Department of Education's innovation- and technology-related grants—such as the Investing in Innovation, or "i3" fund—to for-profit companies.

'Expensive and Onerous'

As for the IPO provisions in the bill, expert predictions fall short of a noticeable increase in such filings down the road. Mr. Pines said the bill could lead more companies owned by private-equity firms to go public, so private investors could see quicker returns on their investments, without as much hassle.
"[Current federal] requirements are expensive and onerous," Mr. Pines said. "So if those are suspended for five years, that's a big deal. Does it make the difference in going public? I don't know. But by suspending the requirements in the near term, it may give an early-stage company the kind of running space it needs."
Experts say the increasing flow of venture capital into K-12 and heightened interest in educational technology are generating opportunities for market newcomers, but the highly local nature of K-12 education makes it difficult for companies to grow quickly. After nine years of less than $100 million of venture-capital funds being invested in K-12 education, 2010 saw $131 million invested, followed by a major increase in 2011, to $334 million, according to statistics from the Chicago-based investment and consulting firm GSV Advisors. Those down years followed the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s when there was also a large flow of venture capital into K-12.
Proponents say the bill will allow companies to grow faster and, thus, hire more people.
Mr. Newman said some of the questions about investor protections and market saturation asked by opponents are legitimate ones. It's also worth questioning if the easier access to capital "disaggregates" the market, spreading thinner the money coming in, he said.But across all sectors, opponents to the legislation cautioned that loosening regulations on startup investments—many put in place following the burst of the dot-com bubble—could spur a repeat of that history. Despite its support in Congress, the bill was opposed by Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary L. Schapiro, several major labor unions, and consumer-watchdog groups.
"Does it continue to enable businesses that shouldn't be funded to get dollars and crowd out more viable and credible businesses?" Mr. Newman asked. "I don't think the marketplace has a shortage of good ideas. It probably has too many."
You can read the article here:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Fun Friday: Easter Egg decorations

Easter Egg Art
Decorating Easter eggs is fun on real eggs, but they can get really wacky when you use this special waxed crayon technique. This craft engages your child in creating designs on a collection of egg shapes and then painting a dark wash on to let the bright colors shine through. Watch the painting transform before your very eyes and add a touch of Easter cheer to your house!

What You Need:

  • White paper
  • Crayons
  • Black tempera paint
  • Paintbrush
  • Water


What You Do:

  1. Invite your child to use colorful crayons to draw eggs on a sheet of paper, and overlap them slightly to create a whole collection.
  2. Have your child create and color in some bold designs with bright-colored crayons. For a cool drawing that really highlights the wax relief, leave some negative space in some parts of the eggs.
  3. Now she can make a black wash by mixing tempera paint with a small amount of water.
  4. Brush this wash all over the paper, and use a paper towel and blot any excess or puddles on the paper. This is a great time to teach your child about how the wax resists water, letting the brightly colored areas to show through the paint.
Hang this picture on the refrigerator or wall as an Easter decoration!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

4 Ways to Help your Toddler Learn Social Skills

toddler, playgroup, play, playdate, socialization, social,
You expect that as your children grow they’ll become less reliant on you. But can you grow their social skills and encourage that independence during the toddler years?
Circle of Moms member April worries that her 13-month-old doesn’t enjoy interactions with others. “He just sits there by himself and plays, or just sits there watching the others play” when he's surrounded by kids his age at a childcare center. “It makes me feel worried that he will go through life with no friends,” she says. 
Meanwhile, Lindsay’s decision to be a stay-at-home-mom weighs on her because she’s worried it's impacting her 21-month-old son’s ability to form friendships. “I feel like people think I am doing a bad job at getting him socialized. At the same time I don't want to rush out and enroll him in daycare once a week just because someone suggested it!” 
For moms who share similar socialization concerns, rest assured. Circle of Moms members have shared the following four tips on how to approach child’s play at the toddler stage.

1. Be Aware of What's Normal for Toddlers

During the toddler years, don’t expect your child to have too many BFFs. “It's pretty common for children at this age to play ‘next’ to each other rather than ‘with’ each other,” explains Sara, noting that in play groups ‘watching’ might be your toddler’s way of participating. 
Of the six types of play/interaction, Nikki agrees "parallel play" is typical for a 2-year-old.” “This kind of play usually involves two or more children in the same area. The children may be in the same area and play with the same or similar toys, but they don't usually play together as such. Quite often, they will mimic behaviors and there may be a small amount of interaction but usually it is not cooperative,” she explains. In other words, toddlers might pretend to cook together and feed their babies, but it is usually just a copied behavior.
Furthermore, toddlers have not yet developed social rules, or the ability to solve conflicts, understand empathy, etc. So parents should expect their toddlers to need more adult intervention with sharing. “At this age children are quite egocentric, ‘it's mine, if I had it half an hour ago it's still mine, I might be playing with something else but if you touch that toy, it's still mine,’” Nikki says.
As children get closer to age three, they enter the “associative play” stage in which they will play together in a loosely organized way, they’ll understand simple social rules, and their personalities begin to emerge. They also tend to find their place in a group, Nikki adds.

2. Take Baby Steps

Despite the lack of togetherness during play, saying “social interaction is not important before the age when children begin to play together is, in my opinion, totally off-base,” Lindsay says, encouraging moms to gradually expose their toddlers to social situations. Children need to “start at the bottom and work their way up. You don't just throw a kid into a room full of other kids and expect him to play with the other kids if he's had no preparation for such a situation,” she says. 
Moms can encourage socialization by exposing their toddlers to playing with others through play dates, organized activities such as mother-child or church groups, Gymboree or The Little Gym. 
Natasha’s son enjoys singing songs at her local library’s nursery rhyme time for under-2-year-olds. “The kids don't seem to interact so young, but you can tell they enjoy it as they all stop making noise when we all sing,” she says. 
Ad hoc play dates at your own home are probably the easiest and cheapest activity in which to involve your child. Plus, they encourage confidence and help your child to feel secure because “mom is around” if needed, Teresa says. 
But in all honesty, you can expose your child to social solutions practically every time you go out, Jenn says, noting your child will observe you interacting with others, “Let him see other kids playing together and make some play-dates with friends. Have them come over to your house, go over to theirs. It'll take time but after a bit, he will make friends,” she says.

3. Demonstrate and Teach

During social activities, it’s important for moms to intervene, and help their toddlers understand how they should interact with others, including when there are older or younger children, as well as disagreements, Circle of Moms members say.
“Children learn a great deal of their social behaviors from their caregivers,” Nikki says. So, “When they play, you play. Show them how, do it with them. They will pick it up much quicker. Show them by demonstrating, and show them physically,” Rachael advises. 
Beth and Mary suggest setting up toys so that they are grouped and spaced apart, in different play areas, similar to how they are arranged at preschools, so that toddlers in a playgroup have alone time and together time.“There will be crossover, but try to encourage the separation. Johnny has this now, you have that. When Johnny puts down the toy offer it to the other child,” Beth says.
When there are disagreements about toys, be sure to teach children how to react, Wendy says.” “[Toddlers] need to know how to react to a bad situation. I tell my daycare children when they come to me and say, ‘So and so said, or hit, or won't play with me,’ I say, ‘You go and tell them you do not like that and it is not very nice,’” she says. “Teach the child to defend themselves, and we all know that is how they will get respect from others and be able to socially play in big groups … Also teach your child to respect others, as well as yourself. Use magic words like please, thank you, may I, and most of all, I am sorry.” 

4. Know Your Child

Ultimately, there are lots of ways to affect social interaction, says Amie, and every child is different. So watch what your toddler has fun at instead of pushing him too soon and making him or her feel insecure and shy, adds Teresa. “For instance, if [your child] enjoys nursery [school] then encourage him to go, but if he enjoys play dates at home more, then increase this until he is confident enough not to have you there.”
As Amanda notes, it's important to keep at it. “The better they are at social skills such as sharing, group entry skills, etc., the better off they will be the rest of their life.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Complete Guide to Autism

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are a group of complex neurodevelopmental disabilities that affect a child’s social, behavioral, and communication skills. In people with these disorders, their brains handle information differently than most people’s do. These disorders include autistic disorder (or “classic” autism), Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS, for short). Autism lies on the more severe end of the spectrum, whereas Asperger’s is a milder condition that doesn’t involve speech impairment (as classic autism does); PDD-NOS, by contrast, is a catch-all diagnosis for when a child has some symptoms of autism or Asperger’s but doesn’t meet all the specific criteria for either one. 
While people with ASDs tend to have some symptoms in common -- like problems with social interaction and repetitive behaviors -- ASDs affect people in highly individual ways and can range in severity from mild to very serious within each disorder. Someone with mild autism may simply seem quirky and lead a fairly normal life. Meanwhile, some kids with more severe autism or other PDD-NOS may seem to be locked in their own worlds, unable to connect or relate to others. They may be more inclined to run along the length of a playroom than to join a group of kids playing together in the middle. Meanwhile, those who have high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome may struggle with negotiating the nuances of social interactions; they might invade other children’s personal space, take things other people say quite literally (making them unable to “get” jokes), or have trouble with the concept of pretend play.  

Currently, it’s estimated that one in every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, and 1.5 million people in the U.S. are affected by it. The rate of autism has been increasing by 10 to 17 percent annually, prompting some people to say we’re in the midst of an autism epidemic, but that’s hardly the case. While some of the increase may be real, much of it may be due to better recognition of the disorders by professionals and the public, as well as to changes in the criteria that are used to diagnose ASDs.

Many experts believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors determine a person’s risk of developing an ASD. While these disorders occur among children of all races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic groups, they are four to five times more likely to occur among boys, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If one identical twin has an ASD, the other has at least a 60 percent chance of having one, too, according to the CDC.

While there’s no cure for ASDs, research continues to untangle the roots and complexities of these disorders -- and early intervention can greatly improve a child’s development. In fact, the sooner a child is diagnosed, the sooner treatments can be introduced, and the sooner a child can be helped, developmentally, socially, and behaviorally. This will improve the chances that a child with an ASD will reach his or her full potential.
While the exact symptoms of ASDs can be highly individual, varying considerably from one affected child to another, the primary symptoms tend to fall into three broad categories: communication challenges, problems with social interaction, and repetitive behaviors or interests. Some may also have sensitivity to sensory experiences such as loud sounds and the bustle of a large crowd. Each of these sets of difficulties can range from very mild to very severe in a particular child, and they can even be fluid over time in the same child.
“Some kids might look more like they have autism one day, Asperger’s another,” says James Coplan, M.D., owner of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics of the Main Line in Rosemont, PA, and author of Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders.“The disorders can blur into each other.” Signs and symptoms of ASDs usually begin before a child turns 3, though some children with ASD appear to develop normally then regress, often between their first and second birthdays. At that point, they may become withdrawn, silent, and disinterested in interacting with others. They may stop developing new skills or they may lose the language and social skills they had already mastered.

Communication Challenges
When it comes to communication issues, ASD problems can relate to both verbal and nonverbal communication. Some children with severe autism may be mute for most if not all of their lives. For others, language may be delayed or they may not speak in the usual ways; they might struggle to combine words into meaningful sentences, speak only in single words, or repeat the same phrase over and over. Others may only be able to parrot what they hear others saying, a condition called echolalia. Meanwhile, others may have fairly normal language skills but may have difficulty maintaining a conversation. Children with Asperger’s syndrome, by contrast, may be super verbal. “They’re like little professors -- they’ll talk your ear off about whatever topic they’re interested in and they don’t understand that other people don’t share that interest,” Dr. Coplan says.

Problems With Social Interaction
On the social front, an infant with ASD may be unresponsive to people, may resist being held or cuddled by parents, or focus exclusively on one object while ignoring others for long periods of time. Children with ASD may avoid eye contact with other people and may not answer to their name. Because they don’t understand social cues like facial expressions or tone of voice, children with ASDs have trouble interpreting what others are thinking or feeling. They may lack empathy as well. In other words, they just don’t get the give-and-take of everyday social interactions.

Repetitive Movements or Interests
In addition, many children with ASD engage in repetitive movements such as flapping their arms or hands, walking on their toes, rocking their bodies, or spinning in circles. They may also develop self-injuring behaviors like head-banging. Sometimes they do this to self-soothe; other times, they do it to stimulate themselves (what’s often called “stimming”). “Stimming behaviors are most evident during the preschool years and usually become less prominent as the child gets older, although they may re-emerge from time to time when the child becomes very excited or upset,” says Dr. Coplan. Children with ASDs also often play in repetitive ways -- lining up their trains in a particular formation, for example -- or they become fascinated with small parts of objects or odd items (like rubber bands). Others have obsessive interests (in robots or space, for example) and talk about them incessantly (in the case of Asperger’s) even if their companion doesn’t share their preoccupation; as these children get older, they may develop an encyclopedic knowledge and be able to recite long lists of facts and figures about their passionate interest, which can make them seem highly intelligent. All of these attributes can be found individually in children without ASDs, but talk to your doctor if your child exhibits several or many of these behaviors.
Although it’s not one of the main diagnostic criteria, doctors also look out for unusual responses to sensory experiences; kids with ASDs may be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the way things sound, look, smell, taste, or feel. (However, many kids have sensory sensitivities but don’t have an ASD.) They may be driven to meltdowns by the sensation of a shirt tag rubbing against their or they may be completely intolerant of mushy foods. They might freak out when a fire truck drives by with its siren blaring or have a four-alarm fit in a crowded, brightly lit department store. And they may become highly upset by minor changes to their environments or routines. Meanwhile, others seek more stimulation -- by continuously spinning in circles on the playground or being a serial hugger in preschool (not because they’re truly affectionate but because they crave the sensation of pressure against their bodies).
At this point, the causes of ASDs remain unknown, and more research needs to be done. It’s likely, according to Dr. Coplan, that genetic factors probably account for the majority of cases of ASDs. In most families with a child on the spectrum, doctors also find a sizeable increase in related disorders such as depression, anxiety disorder and OCD.  Although there has been a lot of talk in the press about possible environmental causes, there is very little evidence to support these theories or fears.  Research has identified a number of genes associated with ASDs, and preliminary studies have found that people with ASDs have irregularities in several regions of the brain or abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in their brains, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.  
It’s also known that ASDs are more likely to occur in people who have other medical conditions such as Fragile X syndrome (a genetic condition that involves mental retardation), tuberous sclerosis (a condition in which benign tumors grow on the brain), Down syndrome (a genetic disorder that causes physical abnormalities and delayed mental and social development), Tourette syndrome (a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and tics), epileptic seizures, and other chromosomal disorders. And there’s some evidence linking the use of prescription drugs -- such as thalidomide and valproic acid -- during pregnancy with a higher risk of ASDs. Indeed, the critical period for developing ASDs may occur before birth.
Vaccines and Autism
Contrary to what some people believe, poor parenting practices and vaccines do not cause autism spectrum disorders. Some parents are concerned that the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps, and rubella), in particular, causes autism. This is based, in part, on a famous 1998 research paper by a British researcher, claiming that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. Earlier this year, The Lancet retracted that paper, based on the researcher’s scientific methods and financial conflicts, and the he lost his license in his native UK. Meanwhile, many studies have examined whether there is a relationship between vaccines and autism spectrum disorders, and study after study has found that vaccines are not associated with ASDs.
Thimerosal and Autism
Another concern stems from whether the mercury-based preservative thimerosal (which is no longer used in most vaccines) could cause autism but a thorough review by the Institute of Medicine found no such link. As the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development puts it, “There is no conclusive scientific evidence that any part of a vaccine or combination of vaccines causes autism, even though researchers have done many studies to answer this important question. There is also no proof that any material used to make or preserve the vaccine plays a role in causing autism.”
Diagnosing ASDs can be tricky since there’s no definitive test, like a blood test or an X-ray, that can indicate for certain that a child has one of these disorders. Instead, a doctor makes the diagnosis based on parents’ descriptions and observations of their child, as well as his clinical evaluations of a child’s behavior and development. “It’s a clinical judgment regarding where a child falls on the spectrum; it’s not clear-cut and that’s where there can be error in coming up with these diagnoses,” says Michelle Rowe, Ph.D., executive director of the Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support and professor of health services at St. Josephs University in Philadelphia.
Age of Diagnosis
If you have even the slightest suspicion that your child may have an ASD, share your concerns with your pediatrician right away. He or she may refer you to a specialist -- such as a developmental pediatrician, a child neurologist, a child psychologist or psychiatrist -- who can do a more in-depth evaluation of your child in order to make the correct diagnosis. You can also contact your state’s public early intervention system -- as a starting point, look up your state’s services -- to have your child evaluated to see if he qualifies for state-funded intervention such as speech therapy, occupational therapy or other services; you don’t need to wait for a physician’s diagnosis or referral.
Signs of ASDs can usually be seen in infants and toddlers, and early intervention therapies can make a big difference in a child's development. Unfortunately, the disorders can’t be reliably diagnosed until somewhere between 18 months and three years. And the reality is, it often happens later than that: after reviewing data from 13 sites participating in the CDC’s ongoing autism surveillance program, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis recently found that the median age of identification for children with ASDs is 5.7 years. The delay can mean that young children with an ASD might not get the beneficial therapies they need from an early age.

Diagnostic Criteria
To diagnose ASDs, physicians use criteria from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV). Symptoms must be ongoing, not temporary, and severe enough to have a considerable impact on a child’s life and ability to function. Here’s how the three different disorders stack up: 

Autistic disorder (or “classic” autism), which is what most people think of when they hear the word “autism,” typically involves significant language delays, social and communication impairments, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many children with this form of autism also have intellectual disabilities, though not all do. “People with autism are fairly disconnected in a behavioral way,” Dr. Rowe says. “They may hear everything going on but not have the expressive language skills to respond in the same way as their peers.” 
A child must have six or more of the following characteristics, including at least two from the first category and one each from the second and third categories:

Marked difficulties in social interactions, including at least two of the following:
  • Problems in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • Failure to develop relationships with peers in a way that’s appropriate to the child’s developmental level
  • A lack of spontaneous efforts to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people
  • A lack of social or emotional reciprocity

Marked impairments in communication abilities, including at least one of the following:
  • A delay in or total lack of the development of spoken language (not accompanied by an attempt to compensate through alternative modes of communication such as gesture or mime)
  • Serious problems with initiating or sustaining a conversation with others (in children who have adequate speech)
  • Repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language
  • Lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play that’s appropriate to the child’s developmental level

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, including at least one of the following:
  • A severe preoccupation with one or more interests that is abnormal in intensity or focus
  • A seemingly inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • Repetitive motor patterns such as hand flapping or body rocking
  • A persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

Asperger’s syndrome
With Asperger’s syndrome, people usually have milder versions of the social challenges and unusual behaviors and interests that are associated with classic autism. These children usually do not have difficulties with speech or nonverbal communication, nor do they have intellectual disabilities. “People with Asperger’s typically have good speech and cognitive function but they have difficulty communicating with people in a socially acceptable way,” Dr. Rowe says. “They know something’s different about them, and they can feel misunderstood when they try to make connections with people, but they don’t know how. This can leave them feeling angry or depressed.”
The following criteria are used to diagnose Asperger's:
Problems with social interaction including at least two of the following:
  • Trouble using nonverbal behavior such as eye-to-eye contact, facial expressions, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interactions
  • Failure to develop relationships with peers in a ways that’s appropriate to the child’s age and stage of life
  • A lack of spontaneous efforts to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people
  • A lack of social or emotional reciprocity

Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities, including at least one of the following:
  • A severe preoccupation with one or more interests that is abnormal in intensity or focus
  • A seemingly inflexible adherence to specific, nonfunctional routines or rituals
  • Repetitive motor patterns such as hand flapping or body rocking
  • A persistent preoccupation with parts of objects
These developmental disturbances cause significant problems in social interactions, at school, and in other important areas of a child’s life. There’s no significant delay in language development (in other words, the child is uttering single words by age two and using phrases by age three). There’s also no significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate abilities to do things for himself, in adaptive behavior or in curiosity about the child’s own environment.

Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)
With PDD-NOS, which is sometimes called “atypical autism,” a person may have some symptoms of classic autism and some symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome but not enough to be diagnosed with either one. Children with PDD-NOS typically have fewer and more mild symptoms than those with “classic” autism but they may have communication problems (whereas those with Asperger’s don’t). According to the DSM-IV, this diagnosis is used when a child has a severe and pervasive impairment in her development of reciprocal social interaction, an impairment that’s related to problems with verbal or nonverbal communication skills or to the presence of repetitive behavior, interests, and activities. Other conditions, such as schizophrenia, must also be ruled out before a child can receive this diagnosis.
Complicating matters, a panel of experts working on the DSM-V is proposing to eliminate the individual ASD classifications and use a new general category called “autism spectrum disorders” instead. These proposed changes are somewhat controversial because it isn’t clear how they would affect the availability of support services for people with ASDs, and some people with Asperger’s syndrome are particularly upset about the elimination of their diagnosis. At this point, the changes are not a done deal and are still being debated; the new DSM-V will be published in 2013.
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