Welcome to the fourth and final post (probably) in my series on diagnosing autism at one-year-old! When it was first suggested that Lina should be evaluated for autism at just over a year old, I was surprised and confused. Now, a few years later, well…I’m still constantly confused…but not about whether to evaluate for autism. The evaluation was a good choice. I’m confused by things like, “Why does Jack ask for a banana and then scream, ‘NO BANANA!’ when I give him one?” And, “Why does Lina prefer watching Peppa Pig in Hindi?” (Note: we do not speak Hindi.) But the benefits of an early autism diagnosis became more and more obvious over time.
In any event, I’m hoping sharing our experience can help other parents and caregivers who might be feeling a little lost. Keep these benefits of an early autism diagnosis in your back pocket for any haters who say “bUt ShE’s ToO YoUnG!”
If you missed my previous posts, you can find them here:
Benefits of an Early Autism Diagnosis: The Research
Basically, when professionals talk about the benefits of an early autism diagnosis, they are thinking about the benefits of “early intervention.” The earlier your child receives an autism diagnosis, the earlier they can receive help and support geared at their specific challenges. But for those of us new to the world of an autism diagnosis, it can seem very overwhelming. What exactly does early intervention mean? How does it help? How early is “early”? And are you doomed if you start “late”? (Spoiler: you’re not.) I break down some of these questions and include some reputable sources for you to do your own research as well – but take it with a grain of salt, because early intervention can and should look different for everyone!
What is “early intervention”?
Confusingly, “early intervention” can mean more than one thing. In general, it’s a broad phrase that can cover a range of therapies and assistance designed to help your child learn skills, communicate better (if that’s an issue for them), and feel more comfortable in the world around them. However, it’s also a common name for government-funded programs that offer therapy and support to kids with developmental delays and disabilities. (In Texas, it’s called “Early Childhood Intervention,” but “Early Intervention” seems to be the more common phrase.) So let’s break it down:
- Early Intervention (the government program) is always my first recommendation for parents concerned about their child’s development. Why? You can read a little more about our Early Intervention experience, but in short, they evaluate kids for delays and provide different types of therapy to address those delays. They are often busy and have long wait lists, but if they confirm your kid has a delay and recommend taking action, you can trust that they have literally no motivation except to help your kid. They ain’t in it for the money.
- At the same time, “early intervention” can be a general term for support and therapy for kids with developmental delays, including autism and other disabilities. There are too many types of support for me to summarize in a single blog post and do them any sort of justice, so I recommend starting with the CDC website for helpful and non-overwhelming summaries of various therapies, including applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy, sensory integration therapy, speech therapy, augmentative and alternative communication, and floortime (DIR). There are pros and cons to each kind of therapy, so it’s *extremely* important to do your homework and find trustworthy providers.
How does early intervention help?
- Kids’ brains are developing like crazy when they’re young. Around the age of 2-3, they’re considered very “plastic,” meaning they can change more easily than when they get older. (And not the way I “change my mind” about my favorite flavor of ice cream*, but actual changes in how the brain functions.) With help, this means they have a better opportunity to learn new skills at a younger age. (https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/autism/conditioninfo/treatments/early-intervention)
- A review of studies done on early intervention has shown that it can help kids in a wide range of areas, including language, social interactions, cognition, and basic life skills. These benefits are not only important to kids in the moment, but they let kids build towards “their next set of achievements,” as the author of the study puts it. For example, they may be better able to participate in an inclusive school environment. In addition, the review found that early intervention that involves “coaching” parents can help them better engage with their kids. Win win! (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6034700/)
How “early” is “early” intervention?
- For government-run early intervention programs, they are required to provide services from birth to age three if the child has either a qualifying medical diagnosis or demonstrates a certain level of developmental delay. (After that, your child may qualify for services through your local school district.)
- For the more general idea of early intervention (that is, providing various therapies and support), there is no hard and fast rule about what’s considered “early.” One study looked at intervention with a baby only four months old, and another with children as young as seven months! Now, a four month old probably won’t be diagnosed with autism by current standards, but if your child is showing developmental or physical challenges at any age, even without a diagnosis, it’s worth reaching out to a professional. Talk to your pediatrician for more info.
- But remember, if you receive a diagnosis later in life, or can’t access therapy as early as you would like, that doesn’t mean some invisible door has closed. There is ALWAYS the possibility of improving skills and life in general with the right supports, even in adulthood! Research into therapy for autistic adults is still developing, but studies have shown improvement in social cognition, for example. And intuitively, we know that adults can learn new skills at any age–maybe not jet-skiing at age 90, but you get my drift–so there’s no reason why autistic adults should be an exception.
Benefits of an Early Autism Diagnosis: My Opinion
(The gif is a joke — I’m not a scientist at all.)
The research is all well and good, but here’s my personal take on the benefits of an early autism diagnosis:
- Knowledge. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. It can put your mind at ease. Instead of doing internet research at 10 o’clock at night, trying to figure out what’s up with your kid, you can have some answers. Instead of wondering why your kid isn’t talking and if it’s because you’re a “bad” parent, you can get a real explanation. For me, the certainty of a diagnosis was a relief.
- Support. For both the autistic individual and their family. When I first began pondering the ways Lina was different from her peers, I wasn’t really sure what I should *do* about these differences, if anything. As it turns out, the answer is…it depends. There is so much variation between children that there are no hard-and-fast rules. But that means it’s even MORE important to talk to a doctor! Instead of feeling around blindly, guided by generic statements on the internet, a diagnosis will help you talk to a professional and learn how to help your child live their best life. There are many types of therapy that might be helpful, depending on your individual situation. And…caregivers often need support too! A diagnosis for your child might help you find the right group of parents to share your thoughts and know that you’re not alone.
- Insurance. An autism diagnosis will often require insurance companies to cover certain therapies, which are otherwise very expensive. Of course each insurance plan may be different, but don’t underestimate the value of a diagnosis in getting coverage for what your child needs!
- Confidence. Confidence in your child, that they’re doing their best, even if their best looks different. Confidence in yourself, that you advocated for your child and are doing YOUR best…even if YOUR best looks different. Confidence that there are tools available to help your child live their best life.
And there you have it…four epic posts about our journey to answer questions, help Lina, and ultimately get an autism diagnosis for a toddler at the age of 1. We’re not a typical family, but I hope we can help other “atypical” families get the help they need and deserve!
* It’s Salted Caramel. No, it’s Mexican Vanilla. No, it’s Cake Batter. Ahhhh can’t decide.