Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of children worldwide. In the US, surveys suggest that approximately 1.5 million children have autism. ASD, autism spectrum disorder, is frequently described as a disability, as it is a developmental disorder linked to differences in the brain. People with ASD can experience problems with social communication and social interactions. There are still a lot of social misconceptions and misunderstandings linked to autism, frequently linked to the media representation of autism. Approaching parents to tell them you suspect their child might have autism typically triggers one thought in their minds: 

Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man. 

Tom Hanks’s Forrest Gump. 

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Regardless of their mental reference, there is no denying that Hollywood not only dramatized autistic portraits but also delivered an inaccurate image of the spectrum. Yet, for many parents, with no other set of reference available, autism becomes synonymous with extreme disability. As such, healthcare providers need to step carefully to approach this difficult conversation. 

Autism is strongly associated with genetic factors, which means that if a parent has ASD, it is likely for the child to have it too. Likely does not mean it is inevitable. But it is important to appreciate that there is a strong possibility of it. Additionally, there is a large number of undiagnosed autistic adults, who do not know they have ASD even though they struggle everyday with ASD-related challenges. As part of the conversation about a child’s potential diagnosis, this can be an opportunity for healthcare professionals to direct parents towards a specialist who could also diagnose their own condition. 

When to suspect autism

As healthcare professionals, recognizing the early signs of autism in toddlers is essential for early intervention. Some of the common signs can include limited eye contact, delayed speech or language development, repetitive body movements, and difficulty with social interactions and imaginative play. It is also important to consider each potential symptom within its context, as there may be many reasons why a child may exhibit some of these behaviors. 

As such, discussing potential signs with parents will be instrumental to gain a full understanding of young children’s behaviors and approach the topic with sensitivity. Avoiding judgemental language is necessary for many reasons. Firstly, this can encourage parents to openly share their observations and thoughts. Secondly, it can also ensure parents are not already biased towards a diagnosis, either trying to see its symptoms or to ignore them.

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Running an early screening

Autism presents itself in more than one way. So, it can be helpful to run an early screening once the healthcare professional has validated some potential ASD signs. SCreening tests vary greatly depending on the subject age. When it comes to young children and toddlers, it is worth referring to the right autism screening tool for the age group, the modified and revised checklist for autism in toddlers, M-CHAT-R. This questionnaire is designed to be completed by parents, but can also be a collaborative exercise between the parents, other carers such as babysitter or relatives, and their family doctor. It is designed to assess the child’s behavior across different areas related to autism. This is built to identify potential red flags. It is important to explain to parents that the screening is not a way of evaluating the severity of a child’s autism, but it is a test that will help decide whether further tests are required. 

Exhibiting some signs of autistic behavior is not the same as being diagnosed with ASD. As such, part of introducing the screening to parents needs to focus on making this distinction clear. 

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Discussing the diagnosis with parents

Receiving an autism diagnosis for their child can be overwhelming for a lot of parents. Naturally, healthcare professionals know how to approach the conversation with empathy and support. More importantly, they need to appreciate the importance of clear communication, using simple language that leaves no room for doubt or misinterpretation. This is central to working together toward supporting the child. 

Many healthcare professionals also prepare resources for further reading and information, ensuring that parents can ask questions and receive guidance throughout the process. 

Educating parents to what ASD means and is must be a priority for supporting the future development of the child. This is also the opportunity to explore the potential benefits of different therapies to support autistic children, including ABA therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, etc. 

In conclusion, approaching the topic of autism with parents can be a tough discussion that requires educating and reassuring them. Nevertheless, it can be an eye-opener for many families who discover that they have undiagnosed autism too and can explore supportive treatments and techniques for themselves and their children.

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