Sometimes there are clear signs that a child is experiencing significant challenges in reaching “normal” developmental milestones. For example, a child may have been born with a significant physical or cognitive impairment. Other times it is not as easy to tell if a young child is “at-risk” of falling behind her same-age peers due to “invisible” developmental challenges, including autism.
Children with “invisible” disabilities like autism may not be diagnosed until preschool or later (Barnard, J., Prior, A., & Potter, D. (2000). Inclusion and autism: Is it working. London: National Autistic Society; NIH Autism Fact Sheet).This is particularly true for young girls (ages 4-8) with less pronounced forms of autism. All too often, our family, friends, day care providers and even family practitioners are quick to soothe our parental concerns by telling us that every child is unique and develops at her own pace. However, there is good reason to follow your “gut instincts” and seek help from qualified experts.
Research and overwhelming anecdotal evidence tells us that the earlier a child receives treatment (interventions and supports that address challenge areas), the more successful the treatment. When you think about it, this makes sense. Children who receive effective treatment early on will be less impacted by their challenges, while those who do not receive treatment will fall further and further behind their peers. Effective interventions and supports are the keys to closing the developmental gap between your child and their same-age peers.
But how do you know if there is “a problem”? In addition to trusting your “gut,” and talking to your pediatrician during regular well-child check-ups, you might want to monitor your daughter’s development progress in comparison with her typically developing, female, same-age peers. It’s important to compare your daughter’s development with other girls and not compare her with boys.
Below is a modified version of our Brief Behavioral Checklist for Signs of Autism. The scale has been modified to allow for the developmental differences between younger children (ages 4-8) and their preteen or older peers. (Keenan, K., & Shaw, D. (1997). Developmental and social influences on young girls’ early problem behavior. Psychological bulletin, 121(1), 95.)
Brief Checklist for Some of the Signs of Autism
Rating Scale of Incidences of Challenges Compared to Female Peers: 1 = Lower, 3 = Same, 5 = Higher.
a. Challenges in social interaction (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
b. Unusual or challenges in communication (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
c. Perseveration including intense or ritualized behavior (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
d. Sensory challenges (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
Whether you use this screen or another one, it is vital that you share your concerns and findings with your child’s teacher/doctor/school psychologist or other support provider. You may find that the challenges your daughter or student is experiencing are “normal”. You may find that the results lead you to request a comprehensive evaluation. Minimally, you will be able to develop a record of challenges your child or student is experiencing in order to build a more complete diagnostic picture.
These support specialists can be effective partners in helping you get the resources and services your child and your family may need. Finding solutions that improve the lives of individuals with autism and the people who support them is a goal we all share.
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