Deciding to objectively look at your child for signs of autism is hard. Thinking about your child possibly needing alternate care or schooling when that child is still a baby was not what you signed up for. But detecting early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and seeking a professional diagnosis is the best way to make sure your child lives a productive and happy life.
Early signs of ASD are not easy to detect and you should always seek a professional opinion with your observations and concerns. It is not possible to diagnose your own child with ASD from reading online tests, blogs, or watching videos. The purpose of this blog is what to look for that could potentially be a valid concern for your child.
Many early signs of ASD can be confused with normal developmental behavior. All children develop at different rates. There are some behaviors that may be valid reasons for raising concern. Let’s take a look at what to look for (and what not to look for) when it comes to your infant or young child and ASD.
What are the Warning Signs of ASD in Young Children and Infants?
There are several marker behaviors that parents should take into account when observing their infant or young child developing. Again, note that none of these behaviors means your child has ASD. These are simply behaviors that are commonly associated with ASD if they persist.
The behaviors listed are from the CDC and Autism Awareness Center.
Infant Behavior Markers (up to 12 months)
- Does not make or maintain eye contact
- Lack of facial expressions (never smiles or frowns)
- Does not respond to their name by 9 months
- Uses few or no gestures
- Does not respond to verbal cues or ‘games’
- Lack of attempts at verbal communication
Young Child Behavior Markers (up to 24 months)
- Does not share interests, such as found objects or toys by 15 months
- No pointing to indicate things by 18 months
- Lack of empathy (recognizing others are happy or sad) by 24 months
- Delayed language, motor, or cognitive skills
- Interested primarily in objects and not people
- Gets upset by minor changes
- Has unusual or extreme reactions to sensory experiences (touch, taste, smell)
Other Potential Early ASD Markers
The CDC lists the following as other marker behaviors commonly exhibited by those with ASD:
- Preterm births or low birth weight
- Environmental exposure to hazards like lead paint
- Hyperactive, impulsive, and/or inattentive behavior
- Epilepsy or seizure disorder
- Unusual eating and sleeping habits
- Gastrointestinal issues (e.g., constipation)
- Unusual mood or emotional reactions
- Anxiety, stress, or excessive worry
- Lack of fear or more fear than expected
Remember, all of the above behaviors and characteristics are just general markers. Some children who get diagnosed with ASD won’t exhibit any of the signs listed above. Always speak to a medical professional when you are unsure of what to be concerned about.
When do the Signs of ASD Start to Show?
Autism Spectrum Disorder is hard to diagnose, as there are no medical tests that reveal it. Diagnoses are made from testing conducted by medical professionals based on behaviors, developmental milestones, and other specific criteria.
With that said, warning signs of ASD can begin to manifest as early as 9 months of age. These are warning signs, not a diagnosis, however, and need to be monitored. Keeping an eye on specific behaviors and conferring with a professional is the first step if you notice one or more marker behaviors that don’t go away as the child gets older.
The CDC notes that “ASD can sometimes be detected by 18 months or younger,” but that 24 months is the age where “a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable.”
When Should I Seek a Professional Opinion?
The best way to seek a professional opinion is by getting one directly from your child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians can help with screening and recommendations. Sometimes developmental disorders and signs of ASD are part of a regular wellness visit for your child. Talk to your pediatrician about specifics if you have questions or concerns.
ASD screening is recommended by many pediatricians at specific developmental intervals. If your child’s pediatrician doesn’t mention an ASD screening at a wellness visit and you have concerns, ask them about it.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developmental screening for all children at doctor wellness visits at 9 months, 18 months, and 36 months of age. The AAP also strongly recommends screening specifically for signs of ASD at 18 months and 24 months.
If your child’s pediatrician believes that your child is at risk for ASD, there are two paths you can take for a formal diagnosis and care plan: private evaluations & interventions and state-sponsored early intervention programs.
What is a Private Evaluation?
Private simply refers to private pay i.e. paid for out-of-pocket or covered by an insurance company. These evaluations allow parents to select a care program of their choice to help evaluate their child.
Private evaluations are in-depth looks at a child’s development. These evaluations are handled by a licensed medical professional like a child psychologist, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, developmental pediatrician, or another specialized professional
These evaluations screen your child, analyze the data, determine whether or not the child needs specialized care, and then help develop a course of action. Keep in mind that private-pay evaluations may not be covered by your insurance and can cost lots of money out-of-pocket.
If you don’t have insurance or can’t afford out-of-pocket expenses for a private ASD screening/evaluation, you should look at your state’s Early Intervention program.
What is an ASD Early Intervention?
For those who cannot take on the financial burden or private ASD testing and screening, Early Intervention (EI) programs are available from individual states. These programs help families with children under 3 years of age get screened and will create a care plan if necessary. States are required by the federal government to provide several services free of charge.
If a screening or concern from your child’s pediatrician notes several at-risk behaviors, you may be encouraged to start an EI. Early intervention screenings do not require a formal diagnosis and are conducted by federal EI specialists.
The EI specialists will determine whether or not your child requires more comprehensive care. EI specialists will recommend the type of care they believe will be the most beneficial for your child.
What Should I Do If My Young Child is Diagnosed with ASD?
Both of the paths to getting a legitimate ADS screening or evaluation listed above will provide you with a care plan. Following this care plan will get you started on helping your child get the services they need to flourish.
After an ASD diagnosis, children are commonly referred to work with one of the following types of professionals:
- Behavioral Analysts
- Developmental Therapists
- Social Workers
- Speech Therapists
- Occupational Therapists
- Physical Therapists
This is not a comprehensive list, it is simply to give you an idea of where your child may start in their developmental journey.
On top of your child receiving special care you, as a parent, will need to learn how to best help your child grow and develop. Talk to your child’s healthcare professional to learn what you can do to best provide the things they need most to grow.
Being active and supportive in your child’s development will help greatly in their development. Therapy for ASD shouldn’t stop when a clinic or class ends–parents should be aware of their child’s interests, behaviors, and moods to help them develop all the time.
Asking your child’s healthcare provider for information on how to learn more is the best next step you, as a parent, can take. Learn, teach, and do what you can to make sure your child grows up in a loving environment.
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