TRAVERSE CITY — Andrea Hentschel had a mother's hunch that something was wrong with her son about a year and a half after he was born.
"He was saying 'mama,' 'dada,' and then it disappeared," said Hentschel. "We would hear one word every two weeks if we were lucky. Then he started having bizarre behavior, like going into the bathroom and opening and shutting the door for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, and I couldn't redirect him."
That's when she first considered the "A word," Hentschel recalled -- a word no one else wanted to hear.
"The fact that he was affectionate and had fairly good eye contact and wasn't throwing blocks out the window made it harder for people to believe he might be autistic," she said, adding that everyone from her pediatrician to her husband to her father, a teacher, believed Alex was just a late bloomer.
Finally, at 3, Alex was diagnosed by the school system and placed in an early childhood program, which, in hindsight, should have been done earlier, Hentschel said.
"... The earlier the intervention the better the outlook," she said. "Six months in child development is like several years for an adult."
About 1 in 110 children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making ASDs more common than pediatric cancer and diabetes combined. And their prevalence is increasing for reasons that aren't well understood, though better awareness is thought to play a role.
ASDs are a group of neurodevelopment disorders that involve mild to severe problems with behavior, communication and socializing. They may or may not cause physical or cognitive impairments.
Although their cause is uncertain, scientists believe age, genetics and environmental factors are to blame. There is no "cure," but some studies suggest that with early diagnosis and appropriate intervention and treatment, as many as 50 percent of autistic children can recover typical function. Another 40 percent can make significant progress.