Diagnosing Autism Early to Help Children Thrive

Many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) report that they suspected that their child was on the spectrum even before their first birthday.

Unfortunately, parents also report they were told by doctors, friends, and family members not to worry about their child’s slower development, lack of eye contact, preference to be left alone, or lack of response to their name—all signs that a child may have ASD. Still, other parents were not aware of early signs of autism and did not start thinking about autism until their child’s language delays were pronounced. 

This delay in receiving care is something that providers are trying to reduce. Experts agree that early diagnosis and specialized interventions for children on the spectrum can have a profoundly positive impact on their life.

“If you’re concerned about your child’s development, behavior, or interactions with you, speak up! You know your child better than anyone else,” says Crystal DeVito, PhD, Senior Child and Adolescent Psychologist at Sheppard Pratt’s Center for Autism. “Discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician, and ask for a referral for an evaluation for autism. If you feel your baby or toddler is not connecting with you, trust your instincts.”

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Autism, or ASD, is a neurodevelopmental disorder that includes a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and speech and nonverbal communication. Children with ASD do not look different from those without the diagnosis, but they communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from others. ASD refers to a wide range of symptoms, skills, behaviors, and levels of ability occurring within the diagnosis.

Why Is Early Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder Important?

It is important that children with autism are diagnosed and receive services as early as possible for two reasons: First, early interventions allow specialists to help a child improve certain skills while their brain is still plastic, or malleable, as it develops. And second, early interventions can teach children social and communication skills that will help them communicate their needs and bond with their loved ones.

“We know that there is often a lag of up to more than a year between when parents first become concerned about their child’s behavior and their clinical evaluation,” explains Robert Wisner-Carlson, MD, Chief of the Autism and Neurodevelopmental Outpatient Program at Sheppard Pratt. “This delay affects when children are connected to services. Additionally, without a diagnosis, insurance companies may not pay for the services that can optimize outcomes for children.”

Typically, diagnosis of ASD occurs between the ages of 3 and 4 years. However, experts are working to diagnose ASD during the critical years from birth through age 3, to take advantage of this developmental window of rapid growth.

“Decades of research demonstrate children’s earliest experiences influence brain development,” says Dr. DeVito. “Interventions are most effective earlier, and services during the first three years of life may change a child’s developmental trajectory.”

Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism

At the Sheppard Pratt Center for Autism, assessments are conducted by a caring and experienced interdisciplinary team of experts that includes a child psychiatrist, child psychologist, board-certified behavioral analyst, nurse practitioner, social worker, occupational therapist, and a speech and language pathologist. 

Families are scheduled for appointments at the Towson campus over the course of one or two weeks to complete a series of assessments. Measures used to directly assess ASD include the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 (ADOS-2), which involves structured, play-based experiences to elicit, observe, and assess communication, social interaction, play, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Throughout the entire assessment process, families are supported by social workers who are available before, during, and after the evaluation to provide support and assistance, answer questions, and connect families with recommended intervention services.

Beyond the Spectrum

After a diagnosis is made, Sheppard Pratt’s team develops a comprehensive care plan that is shared with the family. Sheppard Pratt is unique in that it offers all the supports and services a child will need to thrive throughout their life. Additionally, Sheppard Pratt day schools provide year-round educational, therapeutic, and daily-living services to students with ASD. 

For parents who may be beginning this journey to diagnose and understand autism, Sheppard Pratt’s providers recognize that it can be overwhelming.

“A diagnosis of ASD will likely be life-changing for parents, who may experience a range of emotions and need time and support to process the information,” says Dr. DeVito. “Hopefully, the diagnosis is a starting point for education, increased understanding, and motivation. Parents and families gain a sense of confidence and pride as they help their children achieve goals, learn, and grow.”

To learn more about autism spectrum disorder evaluations, click here

Featured Experts

  • Crystal DeVito, PhD

    Senior Child & Adolescent Psychologist
    Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychological Assessments, Evidence-Based Psychotherapy, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Neurodevelopmental Disorders, Pediatric Behavior, Mood, and Adjustment Disorders
  • Robert Wisner-Carlson, MD

    Chief, Autism and Neurodevelopmental Outpatient Program; Senior Psychiatrist and Service Chief, Adult Intellectual Disabilities and Autism Unit; Clinician Investigator, Sheppard Pratt Autism Registry; Chair, Ethics Committee
    Adult Psychiatry, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual Disabilities, Neuropsychiatry

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