Melania Trump is not taking public claims that her 10-year-old son, Barron, has autism lightly. The future first lady recently hired a lawyer to demand that a YouTube video titled “Is Barron Trump Austistic? #StopTheBullying” be removed.
The video, posted in early November by a man who tells TMZ that he wanted to stop people bullying Barron over his “weird behavior,” lists several “signs” that Donald Trump’s son is autistic. Among them: claims that Barron doesn’t clap properly, makes “strange movements in his seat,” and displays “antisocial behavior.”
Charles J. Harder, a lawyer for the Trumps, sent a legal letter demanding that the user who made the video delete it and issue an apology. The letter also states that Barron is not autistic.
The video was removed on Monday afternoon, and the poster tells TMZ he will issue a retraction and apology to Melania and Barron. Rosie O’Donnell also brought attention to the video, tweeting it out last week with the message “Barron Trump Autistic? If so — what an amazing opportunity to bring attention to the AUTISM epidemic.”
According to autism awareness organization Autism Speaks, autism and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are terms for a group of “complex disorders of brain development.” The disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors, and include autistic disorder, Rett syndrome, childhood disintegrative disorder, pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and Asperger syndrome. “ASD can be associated with intellectual disability, difficulties in motor coordination and attention, and physical health issues such as sleep and gastrointestinal disturbances,” the organization says. “Some persons with ASD excel in visual skills, music, math, and art.”
Autism isn’t rare — according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 68 children have the disorder, and it’s 4.5 times more common in boys than girls.
But Ann Neumeyer, MD, medical director of the Lurie Center for Autism at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, tells Yahoo Beauty that autism is diagnosed after an extensive evaluation conducted by a developmental pediatrician, psychologist, psychiatrist, or neurologist. “It looks at the history of a child’s development of language and communication, risk factors for autism, and a physical evaluation,” she says. That’s typically followed by an observation of the child in which experts will watch how the child speaks and communicates, using words and body language. Meaning — it’s not something that a layperson can diagnose on a whim.
Features of autism, which can be mild to severe, show up in childhood, but many parents or pediatricians start to notice these differences right around 15 to 18 months of age or older, Ashanti W. Woods, MD, attending pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center, Family Health Centers of Baltimore, tells Yahoo Beauty. “When a child is 2 years of age and is not speaking and gets very agitated or upset with new faces or prefers to play exclusively by him- or herself, autism spectrum disorder must be considered,” he says.
Clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, agrees, telling Yahoo Beauty that, unfortunately, a “lay diagnosis” of the disorder is common. “I do see this diagnosis of autism thrown around by teachers and school staff people, and it can have very damaging effects on the student and their future, as well as parents,” he says.
And, like many disorders, there is a spectrum of autism. Some people with the disorder may never speak, for example, while others have fine verbal skills. Therefore, it’s not easy to diagnose.
“It’s like an armchair diagnosis of anything,” Neumeyer says. “There are many things that can mimic it.” She points out that children could have a language delay, a hearing problem that causes them not to speak well, or be very shy, fearful, or hyperactive — all of which could make them look like they’re autistic, but not actually have the disorder.
Woods says pediatricians are always evaluating children’s development, which can signal their autism risk. “Development involves assessing a child’s social skills, language skills, gross motor function (like walking, running), and fine motor function (such as the ability to hold a crayon),” he says. If a child is not reaching his or her developmental milestones at the scheduled visits, that child is usually seen more frequently (monthly to every three months). “It is important for a child to be seen by a doctor so that if delays exist, the physician, after discussions with the parent and family, can get the child started in early developmental intervention therapy,” he says.
For children who do have autism, Neumeyer says extensive behavioral therapy — 20 to 40 hours a week of direct, one-to-one teaching with the child — is the most effective means of treatment for the disorder. “However, there is no magic drug, diet, or cure,” she says.
Neumeyer stresses that people with autism can “absolutely” lead normal, healthy lives. “We have many children who go off to college and grad school and do very well,” she says.