Understanding and helping to identify signs and symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is critical to improving outcomes for kids. Community caregivers play a role in working to get all kids earlier diagnoses and intervention services.
If you think a child may have autism but aren’t sure, refer to the following information to learn more about early detection and how you can talk to parents about what you’ve observed.
Early autism screening and detection
- In most children, many early signs of autism are present in the first year of life. Parents commonly report developmental concerns, such as lack of interest in others, speech and motor delays, and restricted interests, by age 1. Even though we can diagnose children as early as age 2, the average age of diagnosis remains between ages 4 and 5. That age is even later within underserved populations.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends developmental screening at 9 and 24 months of age and autism screening at 18 and 24 months of age.
- Ten to 15 percent of all children, on average, will experience actionable delays that require some level of intervention.
- One to 2 percent of children will have autism.
- A child who has an older sibling with autism is more likely to have autism or developmental delays.
Some key milestones a child should meet by age 1 include:
- Responding by looking when his name is called.
- Enjoying playing social games, like peek-a-boo.
- Using gestures, like pointing.
- Making consonant sounds and a few simple words, like “mama” or “baba.”
Note that bilingual children follow the same developmental milestones as do monolingual children.
Learn more about important developmental milestones and what to look for. If a child is not meeting these milestones, encourage the parent to speak to a pediatrician.
Early intervention is critical for children with autism. There are many ways to help decide which early intervention treatment works best for a given situation, including:
- The National Autism Center’s National Standards Report (2009), which reviews many of the current interventions and treatments for children at risk of developing autism. This can be a helpful source to make sure treatments are safe and scientifically based.
- Babies Can’t Wait, which is managed by the Georgia Department of Public Health, posts information for families and providers about the type and method of delivery of services for children from birth to age 3 along with details about how to make a referral.
- The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, which offers information about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s programs, webinars, lists of publications and access to research articles.
- The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder, which offers information about interventions that scientific research has proven to be effective in treating autism. Their site lists 27 interventions with descriptions of each and links to resources.
How to work with parents
- Informing parents that you suspect their child may have autism can be a difficult conversation to have. In order to have the most constructive talk, keep the following information in mind:
- Promote health literacy. Provide information using language caregivers can understand, and encourage families to participate in the care of their loved ones in order to improve outcomes.
- Take time to understand any influences of language, health literacy, social, educational or cultural factors on a family. Practice cultural competence when working with families of different cultures and backgrounds.
- Have patients or family members restate information provided by clinicians or display newly taught skills to increase understanding and decrease confusion.
- Use motivational interviewing principles when interacting with families:
- Express empathy through reflective listening.
- Establish goals collaboratively based on families’ and clients’ goals.
- Avoid arguments and direct confrontation.
- Adjust to client resistance rather than opposing it directly.
- Help families determine the tools they need to overcome personal challenges.
You play one of the most important roles in helping kids with autism get the care they deserve. Advocating for their needs and supporting their development can change their lives. Contact our training and outreach team for more information.
We recognize that every child is unique and that the content of this article may not work for everyone. This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. We hope these tips will serve as a jumping-off point for finding the best approach to helping a child with autism. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.