Recent research suggests that children reach an average age of 4-5 years before receiving a proper Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. Yet, there is ample evidence that we can identify ASD symptoms as early as 12 months of age. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening all children for ASD using the M-Chat-R assessment at the 18- and 24-month well visits. There is also evidence to suggest that early intervention leads to better outcomes among individuals with an ASD diagnosis within the first three years of life.
Why might it take so long for the average child to receive a proper diagnosis of ASD?
Parents may not be equipped with accurate information about ASD, including signs and symptoms.
Parents may be unsure of who they can turn to for help or for proper ASD assessment and/or treatment.
“If everybody were like everybody else how boring it would be. The things that make me different are the things that make me, me!”
—Winnie the Pooh
Parents may feel anxious about expressing even mild concerns to a physician because it confirms that they may be based in reality. In addition, fear may be preventing parents from listening to concerns that are expressed by other family members.
Parents may recognize the signs of ASD and feel sad, hopeless or helpless about how they can help their child.
Lack of support
Parents may talk with a physician who overlooks or dismisses their concerns. Parents may also feel alone and isolated because they haven’t identified other people with whom they can share their questions or experiences.
What can parents do?
Parents can familiarize themselves with ASD signs and symptoms by visiting the Autism Speaks website. They can also access the M-Chat-R self-assessment online and bring it to their pediatrician for further discussion. These assessments can also be reviewed with a specialist in child psychiatry, child psychology or with a developmental pediatrician, all of whom focus on diagnosing ASD. With ASD prevalence rates of 1 in 68 (and 1 in 42, for boys) parents should know that similar concerns are a part of every community and that support groups are often offered locally.
Moreover, it is important for parents to know that identifying even mild problems in children and tackling them early on comes with immense gains in the child’s development. And, while parenting a child with ASD comes with great responsibility, it also comes with great reward. It is an indescribably uplifting experience to see a child with special needs accomplish goals that come much more easily to others. For the child with special needs, there is a sense of pride when he or she accomplishes tasks that were once thought to be insurmountable. Empowering your family through a proper diagnosis can bring relief, support and success.
Alison Gilbert, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a clinical assistant professor at Hofstra University School of Medicine.