Early diagnosis is important because it means autistic children can benefit from therapies, support, and school accommodations from an early developmental stage.

Autistic people may find it harder to communicate, engage in repeated behaviors, or become overwhelmed by sensory information. Each autistic person has unique experiences and each person needs different (if any) levels of support.

Autism can be reliably diagnosed around 2 years old, but many children don’t receive a diagnosis until much later, such as adolescence or adulthood. This means many people aren’t able to benefit from early interventions.

Many autistic people don’t view their difference as an illness. That said, families may feel that getting an early diagnosis can open the door to therapies that may help their young child develop in certain areas, including:

  • communication
  • social interaction
  • movement skills

Access to therapies can help reduce a child’s frustration and may improve their quality of life.

The diagnostic term for autism is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many doctors in the United States screen for autism during regular visits in a child’s first months of life. Caregivers who know the early signs of autism can be proactive about asking for screening and therapeutic interventions.

Early diagnosis of autism can pave the way for early intervention. This takes the form of therapies that can improve a child’s communication and social skills. This may, in turn, improve a child’s quality of life as they get older.

Early intervention programs can start as early as ASD is suspected. They may begin at 2 or 3 years old when the child’s brain is still developing. Treatments are more likely to have an effect at these early ages than if therapy starts at later life stages.

Some people diagnosed with autism may also be eligible for services at the state level. For example, California regional centers provide lifelong services for those with developmental disabilities, including autism.

Among the possible interventions are speech and physical therapy, hearing impairment services, nutrition, and family training. The child may also be able to access classroom accommodations to support their learning.

Early intervention programs can help children gain basic skills that may be delayed, such as:

  • communication
  • social interaction
  • physical strength and movement
  • thinking
  • emotion skills

Helping children to develop these skills can reduce their frustration. Some children who experience frustration with communication may later exhibit more challenging behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a clinician can diagnose autism as early as 2 years, although they may detect it as early as 18 months.

The World Health Organization estimates about 1 in 100 children globally has autism. The CDC estimated in 2018 that 1 in 44 eight-year-olds in the U.S. had an ASD diagnosis. This works out to about 2.3%.

Male children are far more likely to receive an ASD diagnosis than female children. The CDC surveillance data found 0.9% of eight-year-old girls with the diagnosis compared to 3.7% of boys.

ASD occurs across communities at a similar rate in the U.S., with one exception. The 2018 CDC data found American Indian/Alaska Native children had a higher prevalence of ASD diagnosis than non-Hispanic white children.

Early signs of autism

Early signs of autism may appear between the ages of 12 to 18 months or earlier. Some common signs of ASD in a child include:

  • difficulty with eye contact
  • not responding to their name
  • problem with joint attention (following a person’s finger or gaze)
  • lack of pretend play skills
  • problems communicating nonverbally

Some children may also lose some skills they had previously gained, known as regression. This is another sign of ASD and may occur between 12 and 24 months of age. Signs of regression include no longer using play, language, or social skills they once did.

Children typically visit their pediatrician or family doctor for well-child care visits frequently throughout the first few years of life.

These visits typically include developmental monitoring. This is when a doctor or nurse talks to the caregiver about milestones in various areas — speaking, moving, playing, learning, and behaving — to assess their growth.

Caregivers are active participants in this process. It may help to learn in advance about the CDC’s developmental milestones for children of different ages.

Autism screening tools include:

  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT)
  • The Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ)
  • Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children (STAT)
  • Parents’ Evaluation of Developmental Status (PEDS)

A more formal version of developmental monitoring is called developmental screening. Here, a healthcare professional uses checklists and questionnaires to compare a child’s development with that of other children of the same age.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends developmental and behavioral screening at well-child care visits at 9 months, 18 months, and 30 months of age. They also recommend ASD screening at 18 months and 24 months.

Although the AAP recommends universal ASD screening for all children, some other organizations worldwide, such as the United Kingdom National Screening Committee, recommend screening only for those children at high risk for ASD.

If you are concerned about your child, a doctor may recommend additional screenings outside the regular well-child care visits. This may also be the case if you have another child with ASD or your child shows some signs of ASD.

Screening is not a formal diagnosis. Based on screening results, a formal development evaluation may be considered. In this process, a specialist can conduct an evaluation to determine if the child meets the diagnosis of ASD.

Autism affects about 1 in 100 children globally. Early intervention can help children to gain skills in communication, social interaction, movement, emotion, and thinking that can improve their quality of life as they get older.

Screening for developmental milestones happens during regular well-child visits with a pediatrician, but only a specialist can make a formal diagnosis of ASD.