One of the best ways to help a child with autism is to enroll them in services early. Speech, occupational, and behavioral therapy set kids up for greater success. Most kids who receive support see significant gains in their social behavior, IQ, and communication skills. Young children have an easier time forming new habits and learning skills because their brains are so adaptable.
While most kids show enough symptoms to be diagnosed by age two, the average age of diagnosis is age four, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Shortening the time between identifying concerns and getting a diagnosis is important. It keeps families from living in limbo and ensures kids get help when it can make the biggest impact.
So what can be done to identify children faster?
- Parents can stay up-to-date on well-child visits with their pediatrician. These appointments allow doctors to check for delays and identify issues early.
- Parents can also speak up about concerns. An autism diagnosis can ultimately be empowering because it allows kids to receive the help they need.
- Doctors can continue to use proven screening tools and pay special attention to kids at higher risk for problems. Preterm birth, low birth weight, and family history of autism are all things doctors watch for.
Another way to tackle the lag time is to make it faster to get a full autism evaluation. It’s not uncommon for Southwest Washington families to wait months to a year to be seen. This winter, Vancouver Clinic began speeding up the process by offering evaluations for kids referred to the clinic’s Mental Health Department.
We use a two-part evaluation recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. First is a diagnostic interview where we ask questions and look at symptoms. Next is the observation. We put kids in specific situations to assess their communication skills, social interaction, and imaginative use of materials. Do they join in pretend play? Do they try to get parents to see the new and exciting toy they’ve just been given?
The process takes place over several appointments and may reveal that a child is neurotypical. It may point to a different condition. Or it may confirm autism. A positive diagnosis gives parents the data they need to develop a treatment plan with providers and enter their child into the right therapies.
I recognize that these steps can be stressful for families. I like to remind parents that, no matter the result, their child is still the same amazing kid. With interventions and lots of tender loving care, those with autism can grow up to have fulfilling and good lives.
Finally, while an early diagnosis is what parents and medical professionals aim for, some kids have more subtle symptoms that are harder to spot. Sometimes other factors can get in the way and cause delays. The evaluation process works for kids and adults of all ages. It’s never too late for an autism diagnosis and the support and understanding that come with it.
Andrew Rodriguez is a pediatric psychologist offering autism evaluations at Vancouver Clinic. He specializes in caring for the mental health of children and teens. He considers children to be the future, and enjoys seeing how the right support can make a tremendous difference in their development and success.