University of North Carolina psychiatrist Dr. Jarrett Barnhill has many ways to spot potential development disorders, particularly autism, in young children, but is much more tentative about suggesting ways to help them.

“To me, the evaluation is more important than any specific program, because we don’t really know what the best treatment is,” Barnhill, director of the UNC Developmental Neuropharmacology Clinic, told a Baton Rouge audience of parents and early childhood professionals on Thursday.

Barnhill spoke to more than 200 people at the Crowne Plaza Hotel as part of the speaker series organized by the nonprofit Academic Distinction Fund. ExxonMobil is the lead sponsor of the series, which focuses on early childhood issues.

Developmental diseases such as autism are complex, have many potential indicators and result from many factors, Barnhill said. Desperate for easy treatments, some practitioners give children pharmaceutical drugs whose efficacy is unclear.

“Psychotropic drugs are poisons with positive side effects,” he warned.

During the question-and-answer portion of his talk, Barnhill offered advice on cases audience members were dealing with, but shied away from giving false hope.

“It’s a process,” he said simply. “It’s a cop-out, I know. It takes awhile.”

Ayla Exposé, a social worker, asked Barnhill about a child she is working who has autism symptoms and is having trouble, in part because two teachers employed opposite approaches to deal with the child’s behavior problem, one very accepting but not correcting, the other extremely strict. Barnhill offered suggestions, including having the two teachers watch videos of how the child acts in their respective classes.

Exposé said while Barnhill’s suggestions were somewhat helpful, she appreciated most his understanding of her dilemma.

“It validated what I’ve been dealing with,” she said.

Barnhill gave a long list of potential signs that might indicate a child has a development disorder: disrupted emotional attachment, lack of impulse control and other problems he lumped together under the heading “temperament,” a variety of language disorders, difficulty with coordinating motor skills, brain injuries and ailments, aggression, oppositional behavior, and overly stressed-out response to trauma.

Problems are noticeable early on, even as early as a year old.

“Kids don’t respond to their name, they only spoke when spoken to, they seem preoccupied,” he said.

Barnhill said autism in particular involves the learning process gone awry.

“Every time you learn something, you rewire the brain some,” he said. “Something in autism doesn’t like that process.”

Autistic children respond to the world much differently. He described MRI scans of the brains of autistic children.

“It lights up they are looking at a fire truck more than looking at the human face,” he said.

Their frustration and adverse behavior grows as they get older.

“Many times, behavior is related to something they cannot master in their environment,” he said.

Barnard, however, also noted that, unlike years ago, doctors no longer think such diseases are the result of bad parenting.

Genetics is likely a big factor in development disorders such as autism. The problem is hundreds of genes are involved and can be triggered in many ways, he said.

“There are lots of ways to be autistic,” he said.

Despite his concern with some of the current drugs being prescribed, Barnard said the growing scientific understanding of autism and other disorders is suggesting promising future treatments. He likened it to diabetes, which became much easier to treat when insulin was introduced as a possible solution.

Barnhill said a solution for autism can’t come soon enough.

“It’s just a disorder that hits a lot of the things that matter to us as humans,” he said.