When to Seek an Autism Diagnosis for Your Child

June 5, 2024

When you suspect your child may not be hitting common early childhood milestones at the typical age or that they are processing or interacting with the world differently than other children, you may wonder when it is the right time to discuss your concerns with their pediatrician.

While diagnoses of autism are typically considered reliable by the age of two, you don’t need to wait until your child is a certain age or has missed particular milestones to bring your concerns up to the doctor. As a parent or caregiver, you are the expert on your child and sharing your insights are very helpful for your doctor. Early diagnosis and intervention for autism can lead to significant gains in IQ, communication, and social interaction, helping your child reach their full potential.

Signs to Consider

While all children develop at their own pace, there are several ways you may recognize that your child has processing and developmental differences.

Age-related milestones

The thorough milestones published by the U.S. CDC provide detailed guidance for what to expect at certain ages. Rather than stating a child should speak by a certain age, for example, the milestones outline how many words children typically speak at different ages, how they ask and answer questions, interact in back-and-forth exchanges, and more. In addition to communication/language, the milestones also include social/emotional, cognitive, and movement/physical actions.

Developmental gaps

All children have strengths and challenges. For example, your child may learn numbers and letters ahead of their peers, yet have difficult playing with others or communicating verbally. Taking note of these gaps can help you recognize if your child needs support or interventions in particular areas.

Other common signs

Additionally, there are some possible signs of autism that fall outside of developmental milestones. You may notice your child stimming (repetitive physical motions or vocalizations), having an intense singular focus, having difficulty “fitting in” or connecting with other children at daycare or on the playground, or experiencing a great deal of stress in overwhelming or new situations. 

There isn’t a single criteria list where every box must be checked to show that your child may be autistic. Autism is a spectrum and there’s a lot of variety in how children diagnosed with autism experience the world and react to it, as well as what ages they may exhibit signs. Some parents may notice differences in the first few months, while other children begin to show differences as toddlers. Some children do tick most of the boxes; others may experience only some of the common behaviors — and only some of the time. 

That is why your own parental instinct and knowledge of your child and how their behaviors and communication have developed and changed over time are critical. Trust your gut! If your child isn’t meeting milestones for their age or if you have concerns about the way they move, play, speak, learn, or act, talk to your doctor right away to determine the next steps.

Getting the Diagnosis

There’s no medical test to determine an autism diagnosis. Rather, if your child’s pediatrician notes that your child shows signs of autism based on their developmental progress and behavior, the next step is a referral for a full evaluation by a child psychiatrist or psychologist, pediatric neurologist, or developmental pediatrician. 

Sometimes it can take a while to book an appointment for screening and diagnosis. In the meantime, you can look into services that may help, such as occupational or speech therapy. You may also research therapy options and seek out parent support groups.

Once you do get your evaluation appointment, the specialist will employ a variety of tests and observations to best determine where your child may need help. Tests may cover hearing, speech, developmental level, and social and behavioral issues. They will observe your child and ask you about how their social and communication skills have developed over time. They may also include other specialists in determining a diagnosis.

Reacting to The Diagnosis

Having your child diagnosed with autism or other neurodivergence can be emotional for parents. On the one hand, it can be a relief to put a name to your concerns and have specific next steps to help your child. On the other hand, it can be a shock and an emotionally difficult process.

Autism is a different way of processing the world. It doesn’t mean there’s anything “wrong” with your child. Learning and understanding the way your child experiences the world can help you connect in powerful, meaningful ways. Critical to reaching this connection is a therapy and care approach that coaches you to help your child develop in your everyday interactions, from getting ready in the morning to playing in the park to meal time. 

Finding The Right Care

As a caregiver with children on the autism spectrum, it’s important to know you have options and support as you seek out the most effective care. There are two general approaches to autism treatment. The traditional behavioral approach focuses on changing behaviors as a result of rewarding “correct” responses or behaviors. Interventions that fall under the behavioral approach include Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), Discrete Trial Training (DTT), and Intensive Behavioral Intervention (IBI).

The other approach is Developmental Relationship-Based Intervention (DRBI). The hallmarks of DBRI are creating calm and regulated environments, engagement, reciprocal interactions, shared problem solving, and encouraging logical and reflective thinking. Interventions within the DRBI approach are Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), play-based Developmental, Individual-differences, Relationship-based (DIR), and Parent-Mediated Social Communication (PACT)

At Positive Development, our services are grounded in DRBI to help children diagnosed with autism build real, natural connections with their families and communities. Through play-based interactions and parent coaching, our holistic teams provide support that can encompass speech, occupational, mental health, and other therapies. 

To learn more, visit our therapies page.

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