As a parent, it can be unnerving to gauge your child’s developmental milestones. We want constant assurance that our kids are growing and thriving at a proper pace. During the pandemic, this has become all but impossible. Younger children especially have been deprived of social interactions that would have otherwise provided a benchmark for measuring normal, healthy childhood development. This has left parents of quiet children concerned about whether or not their child has autism or a speech delay.
Early Warning Signs
“Often, it’s hard to tell if a child has a speech delay as a result of autism or ADHD,” Dr. Mary Barbera, renowned Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA-D), PhD, RN, and author tells Parentology.
As the parent of an autistic son, Barbera explains that the pandemic has left a lot of kids, whether they have autism or not, feeling isolated; with no visits, playdates or outside trips, even neurotypical kids may look like they’re having speech delays. This leaves parents unsure what behavior is “normal,” what’s considered a delay, and what requires further investigation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in every six children has a developmental disorder, and about one in 50 have autism. The CDC’s Act Early website has a comprehensive list of developmental milestones that your child should be meeting according to age (linked below), however these are the most recurring identifiers.
- At four months old, children should make eye contact and respond with spontaneous smiles, and there should be increased babbling.
- By one year old, your child should be using single words.
- By two, there should be a combination of words.
- By age three, children should be talking in nearly full sentences if there’s no delay.
More common red flags include delays in social communication, which include speaking and comprehension, as well as non-verbal gestures such as waving. Many children on the spectrum also exhibit delays with eye contact, attention and imitation.
“Many kids with an autism or ADHD diagnosis have a restricted interest,” says Barbera. This may include carrying specific items around, or an obsessive focus on something. “My son Lucas was interested in watching a lot of videos, the same ones over and over again. He was also obsessed with letters of the alphabet [called hyperlexia, when a child recognizes letters and sometimes reads before they can talk].”
Trouble can arise when parents don’t know how to measure those key identifiers. “When my son showed signs of speech delay, I actually overcounted,” says Barbera. “His pediatrician said a child his age should have a repertoire of approximately 25 words and I was literally counting the lyric ‘E-I-E-I-O’ as separate words.” She emphasizes that parents want to make sure they’re not overcounting or undercounting speech.
In addition to language, parents should also assess and be aware of their child’s receptive abilities.
“I thought my son could point to his body parts, but when professionals assessed him, he wasn’t performing,” says Barbera. “It turns out that when I was singing the body part song to him, I was going in the same order, from top to bottom, and pointing to the parts in the same order, every time. He wasn’t ‘learning,’ he was imitating.”
Pursuant to imitation, another red flag for autism is the loss of skills over time; for example, if a child can point, wave or talk and then suddenly stops or drastically reduces the action.
Unfortunately, some of the same red flags for developmental delay can also be the markers of exceptional or gifted kids, making it nearly impossible for parents to know which course of action to take. The pandemic also cut off parents from support, resources, or services, leaving them feeling alone and watching a situation go from bad to worse.
What You Can Do
Whether you suspect your child is on the autism spectrum or has potential speech delays, Barbera offers parents three specific action steps to take immediately.
- Learn about the typical milestones for speech and language skills, available on the CDC Act Early website. Educating yourself on what your child should be doing physically, cognitively, and language-wise at their age can be a huge help in understanding your child’s ability. While you should think of these milestones as guidelines, there could be cause for concern if your child isn’t hitting many of them or none at all.
- Make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician. If possible, speaking with your child’s teacher can also provide instrumental feedback about his behavior in a classroom setting.
- Barbera recommends her book, Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Young Children with Early Signs of Autism*. This 4-step system is a child-friendly approach that helps parents feel empowered to increase language and work on skills to help children catch up as much as possible in all areas.
In a sense, the pandemic has forced parents to become intrinsically involved in their child’s therapy; no longer behind closed doors, parents can now engage in their child’s sessions and be an active part of the solution. Now, more than ever, parents have to become their child’s best advocates.
“Parents can make a tremendous impact on their child’s development through behavioral practices taught at home,” says Barbera. “You can literally change the trajectory of your child’s life.”
*Parentology is an Amazon Affiliate. When you use Amazon links in our articles to buy products, we may earn a commission but that in no way affects our editorial independence.