Recognizing and Treating Autism

“I didn’t want to hear it, I didn’t want to know. 

I felt like the son I thought I had was gone. All the dreams and hopes I had for him disappeared in a split second.”

Those are the words of Shirliene Navarro, remembering how she felt when her son Marcello was diagnosed with autism — feelings that many parents of a child diagnosed with autism can relate to. But as Shirliene discovered, her son’s journey became one of hope and encouragement.

Autism spectrum disorder is a general term for a group of complex disorders characterized by impaired social relationships, communication difficulties and repetitive behaviors. Parents often experience guilt with a diagnosis, believing it is their fault, or are concerned about the risk for future children.

“Only 15 percent to 20 percent of autism cases are found to accompany another diagnosis or have a specific cause,” says Lynda Pollack, MD, medical director for the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, Developmental Center for Infants & Children. “However, researchers are now finding some answers.”


Marcello had been an easy, quiet baby, but as he grew older, Shirliene realized that those very qualities that had made him seem like such a good baby just weren’t right.

“It was almost like, when I touched him, it hurt,” she recalls. “He wouldn’t make eye contact, didn’t like to be touched, and didn’t interact at all with others.”

Signs of autism often do not show up until 1 to 2 years of age and are displayed in four main ways:

  • Sensory – high sensitivity to lights, noise, touch
  • Social challenges – lack of eye contact or social involvement
  • Behavioral – stress in dealing with sensory and social overload, which can prompt hand flapping, yelling, spinning, repetitive movements
  • Communication – delay in language development

Early diagnosis by a qualified pediatrician or neurologist and the right treatment are key to successful outcomes. While there is no cure, with the right tools and therapy, children with autism can grow to lead productive, successful lives.

“Autism is not a static diagnosis,” notes Dr. Pollack, adding that continual reevaluation is necessary to provide successful education and support for affected children.


Shirliene was determined to get Marcello the help he needed and to learn as much as she could about his diagnosis. Her efforts brought them to The Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families and its Early Steps program for children from birth to age 3 who may have a developmental delay or disability, including autism. The Howard Phillips Center is part of Orlando Health Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.

“They provided me with so much hope and information and resources,” Shirliene says. “I realized that there are many positive possibilities for my son.”

Through the Developmental Center for Infants & Children/Early Steps program, families can learn about their child’s development, how they can help their child overcome delays, and how to obtain appropriate community services and support.

Lourdes Quintana, program director, says their goal is to provide culturally appropriate support to help families strengthen their child’s intellectual, physical, emotional, social and sensory abilities. Family participation and cooperation are critical, she says, noting that Early Interventionists are treating and teaching not only the child but also parents, who are often in crisis when they enter the Early Steps program.

It wasn’t long after Marcello started receiving a variety of services that Shirliene noticed he was much more talkative and receptive to touch. He has made tremendous strides since beginning early intervention. The quiet baby who Shirliene did not think would ever hug her became a cuddly, chatty little boy and a technological whiz.

“He has so defied the definition of what I thought was going to be his life. He talks, he reads, he writes, and when he said ‘I love you’ for the first time, my husband and I just cried. What a feeling.”

Shirliene herself is now a team member in the program as a Family Resource Specialist, where she is able to share her experience with other parents going through similar events.

If you are concerned about any of your child’s behaviors, do not wait — early intervention is key. Talk to your doctor, request that your child be screened, and get the right diagnosis.

To learn more about the programs offered by the Howard Phillips Center for Children & Families, visit