Caitlin Rissler was 13 years old when she first heard the word “autism.” It was after the little boy from next door was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges.

Rissler used to babysit for her neighbor and watched as the single mother struggled to navigate the complicated process of her son’s diagnosis.

The experience sparked Rissler’s interest in the disorder and helped her make the career decision to help families and children affected by autism. Today, she is a nurse practitioner at Novant Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It’s such a process for parents to go through losing what their typical expectation was for their developing child,” Rissler said. “Often parents are in denial, thinking their child will grow out of it. Once they come to terms, it’s often a desperate need to get help immediately. I want to be that resource for parents so they can have the information they need.”

Autism is characterized by deficits in social interactions, communication and stereotyped or repetitive behaviors. The earliest red flag is typically a parent’s concern about their child. Rissler said it’s extremely important to investigate those red flags immediately, as it’s best to intervene as early as possible.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some signs individuals with autism show include:

  • Having trouble relating to others or not having an interest in other people at all.
  • Avoiding eye contact and wanting to be alone.
  • Having trouble understanding other people’s feelings or talking about their own feelings.
  • Repeating or echoing words or phrases said to them, or repeating words or phrases in place of normal language.
  • Having trouble expressing their needs using typical words or motions.
  • Having trouble adapting when a routine changes.

Today, 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States. The diagnosis is not specific to racial, ethnic or socioeconomic groups, but is almost five times more common among boys than girls. There is no medical test for diagnosis. Physicians have to look at a child’s behavior and development to make the diagnosis.

That’s where Rissler comes in. At Novant Health Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, Rissler spends her time doing initial evaluations and follow-up care with autism patients and their families.

“I really focus on educating the families and giving them some behavioral strategies to practice at home,” Rissler said.

“I want families to understand it takes time,” she added. “Some behaviors can be taught, but it doesn’t come naturally for children with autism. I also work to connect families with community programs and support groups within the autism network.”

Rissler noted that while there are challenges, there are many professionals and parents in the community who are really invested in autism treatment and services.

“I think we’re making strides and taking the right steps,” Rissler said. “Awareness of autism has greatly increased in pediatricians and therapists who are now able to identify early red flags for autism. Breaking it down for parents and educating them can help ease some of the stress. You don’t have to walk alone in a diagnosis of autism. We’re here to help you navigate the changes.”