ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (WFLA) – More parents and caregivers are learning about the benefits of early intervention after a child has received a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one in 44 8-year-old children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Dr. Lauren Gardner, director of the autism program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, said there is a demand for evaluation of kids here in the Tampa Bay area, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

“We have a really high demand for young kiddos who are needing diagnostic evaluations and so, I think that we are falling along those lines of seeing that there is an increased rate of individuals who are seeking diagnosis earlier, and I think that hopefully speaks to the fact we’re doing a better job recognizing the signs earlier,” Dr. Gardner said.

She said some of those signs include delays in language and speech, restricted, repetitive behaviors like hand flapping and rocking, low body tone, limited eye contact and more.

Dr. Gardner said early intervention is key for young children.

“Especially in the early developmental period, we have neuroplasticity. So the brain is developing so quickly. So this is the time where by providing these interventions, we can actually change the course of development over time,” she said. “That’s not to say that if you don’t start intervention until later that there aren’t still benefits. There most definitely are.”

Both parents and therapy providers are oftentimes involved in these various forms of intervention.

Dr. Gardner explained teaching involves repetition and positive reinforcement and joining a child in their own play so they remain engaged.

“It’s not that we want to sit them down and make them do what we want to do, but that we’re integrated these programs, these behavioral programs, that they’re already engaged in, so that it’s more reinforcing for them,” she said.

Parental and caretaker involvement is important so families can collaborate with therapists and educators in schools so gains are made quickly in a child.

“They can really appreciate the gains that their kid is making because they’re helping contribute to it and they’re seeing those gains across different settings,” Dr. Gardner said of parents.

Early intervention focuses on working on child’s socialization, communication and preacademic skills, so they are ready for kindergarten.

“[They will] have skills that they’re able to socialize with their peers. They’re able to express themselves using words. They’re able to sit at the table and they know their letters, numbers, colors, shapes, the things that we expect kiddos to have in place for kindergarten, these programs will help assure that these kids are ready,” Dr. Gardner said.

Parents who suspect their child may have autism should seek diagnostic evaluation with their pediatrician to begin referral processes, or by contacting the Johns Hopkins Autism Program.

Though early intervention is important, Dr. Gardner said kids of any age are going to benefit from any kind of intervention.

“For families who can get access to an early diagnosis, an early intervention, it is key. But all intervention is going to show gains for these kiddos and so I don’t want to downplay that even if your child is 5, 6 years old and you feel like you’ve missed that early intervention window, all intervention is going to have positive outcomes for these kiddos,” she said.