The Importance of Pediatric Neurology in Treating Autism

Manuel Antonio Fernández is one of the best neuropediatricians in Spain. In our interview with him we reflect on the importance of this science in a child's life in order to facilitate optimal development and early detection of any potential problems.
The Importance of Pediatric Neurology in Treating Autism
María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

In our interview with Manuel Antonio Fernández, we discover why he’s recognized as one of the best pediatricians in Spain today, as well as focus on the latest approaches for treating autism.

We also see that he’s a doctor who stands out for his exceptional treatment of patients and the quality care that he offers. He’s an expert in Child Neurology and director of the Andalusian Institute of Pediatric Neurology (INANP). In his consultations he attends to everything from learning and behavioral difficulties, to problems of maturation and development.

In addition to detecting and advising on treating autism spectrum disorders or hyperactivity, Dr. Manuel Antonio Fernández also deals with related conditions such as childhood migraine, epilepsy or sleep disorders. We’re talking here about an outstanding professional who’ll inspire you with his work and who, in turn, can teach us all great things. On this occasion, we talked to him about child neurology and treating autism.

“The task of child neurology is to ensure normal neurodevelopment. It will also act when this maturing process doesn’t go as it should.”

– Manuel Antonio Fernandez –

Interview with Manuel Antonio Fernández

In our interview with Manuel Antonio Fernández, we became aware of how relevant the field of child neurology is in any advanced society. To begin with, this area of medicine isn’t only aimed at detecting and treating different problems, illness or other conditions in the life of the child or adolescent.

In fact, we’re dealing with a science that seeks to guarantee, above all, the optimal neurological development of our children. Likewise, there’s another essential aspect that we must take into account. As parents or educators who want the best for their children at all times, we’re grateful for the support and advice of experts in almost every aspect of their lives.

We need this area of science to detect problems early on. We also appreciate the support of pediatric neurologists to help children on the autism spectrum (ASD), to ensure their inclusion in the classroom, and to know what kinds of programs are best suited for them. These are the questions we dealt with in our interview with Dr. Manuel Antonio Fernandez.

Briefly, what does child neurology consist of?

Child neurology is the field of medicine, within the specialty of pediatrics, which is concerned with ensuring a child’s correct neurological development. This is from the time of conception, until when a child becomes an adult, which is when we believe that this development ends.

As you can see, this goes far beyond what most parents currently think. Among other things, it means that we’re still far from achieving the full development of this specialty and responsibilities of a pediatric neurologist.

How does child neurology influence the detection of disorders such as autism? What is the diagnostic procedure?

The task of child neurology is to ensure normal brain development. However, we also need to act when something goes wrong in this process. One thing we really must do now is to stop talking about autism as if it were a unique and specific problem. This is not the case.

Autism is the set of symptoms or behavior patterns where a person can’t regulate the brain mechanisms that they need in order to maintain a normal relationship with their immediate environment. There are many different causes for this and, because of this, there are many different “types” of autism.

The role of the child neurologist is to analyze each case, and to use all means available to try to find the cause of the problem. In the vast majority of cases, this is genetic. They will then need to do everything possible to ensure that the child with autism can achieve the maximum development possible within his or her limitations.

In treating autism, the aim is for the child to achieve the greatest capacity for integration and autonomy that he or she can.

The Importance of Pediatric Neurology in Treating Autism
This involves detecting the problem as early as possible by identifying warning signs, analyzing the child’s behavioral profile, and carrying out the necessary neurological tests. You then need to inform the family and support them in such a way that they can be totally involved with the objectives and, at the same time, not become dejected with the situation and turn to different pseudo-therapies.

As an expert, could you define what autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder is?

ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a child neurodevelopmental disorder of eminently genetic origin. The altered brain structure causes problems in the functioning of a series of brain mechanisms that are essential for regulating behavior.

This ends up causing limitations in the child’s ability to communicate and interact socially. It also creates repetitive, inflexible and abnormal behavior. Fifty percent of children with autism don’t speak and 50 percent have epilepsy.

Why are there so many cases diagnosed these days, many more than a few decades ago?

We detect more cases of autism than several decades ago for several reasons. I will summarize the three that I think are the most important:

  • One of them, if not the main one, is that our knowledge about the condition has improved a lot. This means that professionals are much better prepared to identify these kinds of cases.
  • Another factor is that scientific advances in areas such as genetics have enabled better detection of these cases.
  • And, thirdly, society is more aware of the condition. This means that they are far more likely to consult their doctors even if the symptoms don’t seem to be serious.

What types of autism exist and what are their symptoms?

There are as many types of autism as there are autistic children. However, it’s also true that there are a number of recurring patterns in the symptoms. These fall into three groups:

  • Communication disorder. The child isn’t able to transmit and receive information normally.
  • Disorder in social relations. They aren’t capable of being aware of the differences that exist between their own point of view and that of others. As a result, they aren’t able to establish adequate relationships with the people around them.
  • Inflexible behavior patterns and restricted interests. They have alterations in how their brains regulate their motivations. This means they become interested in things that aren’t very functional and that they also require very stable environments.

Tell us about the relationship between the “theory of the mind” and autism. Is it true that this capacity is inhibited?

Indeed, this is one of the theories that best explains the symptoms of autism. From my point of view, there’s still a lot more to learn within the world of neurodevelopment. Because of this, I think that in the future we’ll see that many of these theories will change.

However, it’s always the case that children with autism spectrum disorders find it difficult to be aware of the differences between their viewpoint and that of others.

What ways of treating autism are available for children with autism, and what steps should parents of a child with autism take?

Treating autism in a child must address several issues:

  • Therapy. The therapy when treating autism must include all necessary and deficient aspects. This may involve the inclusion of speech therapy, psychology, neuropsychology, psychopedagogy, occupational therapy, and other complementary activities. We also recommend multisensory stimulation right from the start, in order to favor their development. There are intensive programs such as the ABA or TEACH that also have these principles as a foundation.
  • Pharmacological treatment. When the symptoms associated with attention difficulties, hyperactivity or impulsivity make it difficult for them to carry out their activities, limit their development, or produce aggressive behavior, then we need to assess the use of medication in order to try to reduce these difficulties, help them to control their impulses, and enhance their development.
The Importance of Pediatric Neurology in Treating Autism

How can parents act when they think their child has autism or a similar disorder in early childhood?

The first thing they should do is request information and an assessment from a specialist. Early detection is one of the pillars of the process and the one that most often doesn’t happen.

Early detection can ensure that the child achieves appropriate therapy. This can decrease the negative impact that an altered neurodevelopment can have on a child with autism. Children with ASD have very versatile brains in their early years and therapy at an early stage will give much better outcomes.

How should teachers act?

The educational environment is critical to an autistic child’s positive development, whether in regular or special education settings. The work of teachers is essential as a support for the therapy given by health professionals. They’re also a support for the complementary activities carried out by parents and the whole family.

As far as possible, experts should consider the inclusion of children with ASD in ordinary schools. This will help them to integrate better, and will increase their social skills. To do so, it’s not only necessary to invest in support staff, but also to adequately train teachers. This will ensure that they have the necessary skills and tools to carry out their jobs well and to encourage attention to diversity.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.