How early is too early to diagnose ASD?

When parents hear the suggestion that their child may be showing some signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or of developmental delays more generally, there are two common responses. The first is to latch onto the idea, which may feel like it explains certain things parents have been concerned about. On the other hand, others may dismiss the possibility, either because it can feel too early to tell, or because it can feel like an attack on their children.

In many cases, the most useful response is somewhere in the middle. Studies suggest that parents – who know their children better than anyone, after all – are reliably good witnesses for whether their children should be watched closely for developmental concerns. If you have an instinct, or a feeling, following that feeling through can be helpful. On the other hand, getting an evaluation when a healthcare provider or somebody else has concerns can be helpful, since starting Early Intervention promptly is always wise.

How early is too early to diagnose ASD?

ASD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder, is a condition characterized by a wide range of types of symptoms surrounding social, developmental, and language delays. In recent years, studies have come out suggesting that it’s possible to detect the symptoms of ASD at earlier and earlier ages. What’s important to keep in mind about these studies, however, is not just that they are not definitive, but that they’re designed to detect a certain set of symptoms of ASD. But since ASD can present itself in any number of diverse ways, some of which can’t even develop until later on in a child’s development, early detection methods aren’t the right fit for many young children who will eventually be diagnosed with ASD. 

Many signs and symptoms of ASD start to emerge between 6 and 18 months, but it can take much longer than that for it to become clear that children are autistic – many autistic behaviors are also common in children who do not have ASD, while many children who do have ASD don’t show all or even most of the most recognizable symptoms. 

If a child’s usual healthcare providers don’t feel comfortable diagnosing ASD within a certain age range, they may be able to refer parents to experts in the field, who may have more experience with diagnosing ASD. They may also put certain children on “watch and wait” lists, to keep a close eye on as they develop. 

No diagnosis? (Maybe) No problem

Diagnoses are useful not for themselves, but because they can help young children get access to therapies and services that can help them deal with trouble. If a young child is showing potential signs of ASD, but there aren’t specific medications, therapies, or services that they need yet, not having a diagnosis won’t necessarily be a problem for them. 

Early Intervention services can offer therapies and other services to young children who show signs of delays, even if they haven’t been formally diagnosed yet. They offer services based on whether the EI evaluation shows delays that EI can help with.

Sometimes an ASD diagnosis won’t happen until the skills and behaviors a child has trouble with are asked of them in their day to day life, which is part of why many young children aren’t diagnosed with ASD until they start school. This makes sense, because therapies and interventions for symptoms of ASD are called for as they’re needed – children with social or communication delays, or who are having trouble connecting with their parents or caregivers, may be diagnosed, or may qualify for intervention, earlier than children with other types of symptoms.  

Early Intervention is a great tool for children who need it, but it’s important to remember that differences aren’t always problems. Children who are having trouble with certain skills may need treatment earlier on, while other young children may show differences that aren’t necessarily problems right away or at all.

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