About 1 in 44 kids in the United States are likely to be diagnosed with autism, including those who previously would have received the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, which, since 2013 has been classified under autism spectrum disorder (ASD) rather than as a separate condition.
Autistic children may present with skills, talents, and abilities that seem well-developed in some areas but may have challenges in other areas of life. This may make it difficult for parents, and even medical providers, to diagnose a child when navigating the constantly changing social landscape of childhood.
How can parents tell if their child may be autistic?
Some features of ASD in childhood include:
- Difficulty with social interactions with same-age peers (and may relate better to adults than other kids)
- Fixed interests/preoccupations (very strong focus on particular subjects or activities)
- Repetitive routines, inflexibility, difficulty moving to new tasks until others are finished
- Repetitive behaviors or mannerisms/gestures
- Repetitive or unchanging speech patterns (may speak in a flat tone, loudly, or repeating comments)
- Demonstrating a formal style of speaking
- Fleeting or indirect eye contact across many types of social interactions
- Trouble reading the body language of others or following social cues
- Sensitivity to the environment (light, noise, etc.)
- In early childhood delays in motor skill development, awkward movements, clumsiness
- Difficulty with give-and-take or taking turns in conversation
- Literal interpretation of language (in some cases difficulty with sarcasm, humor or related nuances in communication)
- Difficulty understanding others’ feelings, difficulty understanding the role of empathy
To be officially diagnosed, a child must have a combination of these symptoms that affect daily life — family, friends and school. Consulting a medical or child developmental expert is important to rule out other reasons for these symptoms and to make an official diagnosis.
A diagnosis of ASD comes with levels of severity, with varying levels of support needed. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls, and while many children are diagnosed with ASD in early childhood, some may not be diagnosed until adolescence.
Autistic children, as with their neurotypical peers, often seek to fit in and interact with others but they may have difficulty knowing how to meet this goal. As a result, autistic children and teens may face challenges socializing and may be at risk for negative and hurtful experiences like bullying. Many may be at risk for developing mood disorders, such as anxiety or depression, especially in the teen years.
Early identification is important. Autistic children who are diagnosed and provided support earlier in life have an increased chance of meeting challenges and increasing success in meeting their goals moving forward in their lives.