Could My Child Have Autism?

Expert Dr. Gary Mesibov answers questions parents want to ask.

Dr. Gary Mesibov is a licensed psychologist, and has dedicated his professional career to helping people with disabilities, and more specifically those on the autism spectrum. Mesibov spent much of his career at UNC Chapel Hill’s program, TEACCH, working to further develop the structured teaching method. In 2010, he retired as the director, but continues his work as a consultant and speaker.

Dr. Mesibov chatted with us about the culture of autism and the latest in diagnosis and treatment.

What does autism look like in a toddler and preschooler?

Basically, if you have a young child that is not developing normally and you notice strange things, particularly in the area of language and communication like delayed language development or lack of spontaneous initiated communication. Or if a child does not look at faces or smile as often as typical children, or they do not share attention like a typical child does when something catches their interest.

What behaviors should parents be on the lookout for?  

I don’t think parents should be on the lookout for those things, but if you have a question, your first step should be discussing it with the pediatrician. The American Pediatric Association suggests that pediatricians do a screening around 18 months, and they do have an easy to administer screening instrument they can use.

How are degrees of autism now defined? 

In the old diagnostic system, they used terms like Asperger’s, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) and atypical autism. During studies, they found that those terms were not consistently used. So they decided to use the “autism spectrum.” The spectrum is a continuum from mild to severe.

These terms mild and severe, unfortunately, can sometimes make the parents more nervous and upset. But really, the terms describe the level of support that a child is predicted to need to get through school, not their level of autism.

How should a parent approach early education for a child with autism? 

Early intervention is good, early intervention works. I think the parent’s relationship with the person doing the early intervention is important. They should find someone they are comfortable with. If they are not happy with that person, they should make a change.  

Parents do need to learn and understand the strategies being used with their child, but to understand that all children still need their mom. A child on the autism spectrum is still a vulnerable kid growing up and needs a mother’s affection and concern. Parents may not follow every rule and strategy in every situation, and that’s OK.

What is the structured teaching method that TEACCH developed?

We have tried to bring together different strategies that are going to help a child with autism understand the “why” behind an expected behavior. It is going beyond the reward system because it explains how to understand situations, why a behavior is expected, and how that behavior is expected in other environments.

For example, you might say to a student that you don’t want them running around the classroom screaming because it is bothering other children. You might explain that it will make it harder for them to make friends.

Structured teaching builds on the communication and repertoire of the child’s individual understanding and needs. Through this process, they are going to have a broad range of skills to use throughout their life.

Vanessa Infanzon is a mom to three children, one who has special needs. Follow her on Twitter @morethanvmi, or her blog, Special Attention.

Dr. Gary Mesibov is the presenting speaker at the at Autism Spectrum Disorder Conference hosted by Charlotte Area Health and Education Center and Child and Family Development Center April 22. Learn more at