As a special educator in early intervention for 15+ years, I get this question a lot!
And do you know what? I’m SO glad when I do! It means parents or caregivers have thought about it and want to discuss it with me. They have concerns and trust me enough to say them out loud.
Let me say this first (as I do to all families I work with) — I CANNOT diagnose autism. Generally, it’s a psychologist or developmental pediatrician who will diagnose toddlers or preschoolers.
I can’t diagnose autism but I have worked with hundreds of families over the years and can see the early characteristics and will discuss those with my families.
So, are you worried your toddler or preschooler has autism? Or are they just not talking? Is it a sensory thing?
Let’s pick it apart a little.
Here are a few of the common early signs of autism:
- Few social smiles
- Seems more interested in objects than people
- Limited eye contact
- Limited back and forth interactions with people
- Not responding to sounds, words, and name
- Delayed spoken words
- Delayed comprehension (names of things and people, understanding directions, etc)
- Loss of skills (used to say mom and dad; used to play with brother; used to eat variety of foods)
- Rigidity around play and routines
- Sensitivity to certain sensory stimuli (sounds, noises, light, textures, etc)
If you see any of these in your child, DO NOT WAIT! Talk to your child’s pediatrician. If the pediatrician says your child is fine or to just wait it out and you’re still concerned, get another pediatrician OR call your local early intervention program.
As you look at the list, keep this in mind — autism is a spectrum disorder! Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe. Or maybe your child has some but not others.
Keep this in mind too — having some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean it’s autism.
BUT — just because your toddler or preschooler is sometimes affectionate or sometimes looks at you, doesn’t rule out autism either.
Characteristics of autism are NOT absolutes. A lot of children and adults with autism will look at you. They will hug people if they want to. Some kids with autism will eat whatever you put in front of them. Sometimes they will respond to their name.
If you choose to get an autism evaluation, they will look at the QUALITY and QUANTITY of your child’s behaviors (and how that compares to kids of the same age). Does your child only communicate with you when he wants more crackers? Does your child generally only interact with you when she wants you to open the door? Does your child sometimes respond to their name? Sometimes look at you?
The only way to rule in or rule out autism is to get an evaluation completed by a professional who is able to conduct one. The best way to find someone in your area is to call your insurance provider. You can also check with your school district, early intervention program, or by asking your pediatrician.
Deciding to have your child evaluated for autism is a very personal one. And it can be very scary as well!
But it will allow you to rule it in or rule it out. Having a diagnosis of autism can also open up additional services as well.
As a parent, special educator, and BCBA I know it breaks your heart to see your child struggle. It breaks your heart to not see your child meet the same milestones that other kids in your neighborhood and family are. It breaks your heart because your path as a parent is going to look very different than the one you envisioned.
But I am telling you as a parent and teacher, it is FAR, FAR BETTER to take the hard first step. Call your pediatrician. Talk to your insurance provider. Call your local early intervention program.
The sooner you get your child services, the better! “Wait and see” is a terrible approach!
As a parent who went through MANY evaluations to figure out what was going on with my son, I would 100% do it again. It didn’t make things better or change anything but I KNEW! I had the information and could make better decisions for him because of it.