Early Detection of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex neurological condition, which affects an individual’s communication skills, social interactions, and cognitive functioning. In the U.S., only 20% of people with ASD are diagnosed before age 3, with most diagnoses not occurring until age 4-5.

According to the Autism Society of the United States, early intervention (beginning before age 3) can reduce the cost of care over a person’s lifetime by 67%. All states have early intervention programs. In Florida, the Early Steps program serves families of infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities and delays up until a child’s third birthday. Because early intervention services end at age 3 in most states, early diagnosis is necessary to access those services and achieve better outcomes.

Parents are often encouraged by well-meaning friends, relatives, and even physicians, to take a “wait and see” approach when it comes to communication disorders, with the rationale that the child is just a late talker and will grow out of it. While some children really are just late talkers, it is not normal for a child not to talk until age 3 or 4, and the opportunity for early intervention is lost, in the event something more significant than being a late talker is going on.

Below are some milestones to be aware of. If your child has not met these milestones, that it is a red flag for Autism Spectrum Disorder and/or a language delay.

By your child’s first birthday, s/he should be:

  • Babbling (strings of consonants and vowels)
  • Pointing to things (both to ask for them and just to show them to you)
  • Following your point
  • Responding to his/her name


By your child’s second birthday, s/he should be:

  • Using at least 50 words spontaneously (without you saying the word first)
  • Beginning to meaningfully combine two words and not just using memorized phrases like “thank you” or “here ya go”


The loss of words in a child 18 months or older is an additional red flag for ASD.

Some of the social behaviors that are absent or delayed in children with ASD can go unrecognized if you’re unsure of what to look for. Autism Navigator is a great resource to view side-by-side videos of young children at risk for ASD and typically developing peers. The ASD Video Glossary on this site can be especially helpful in figuring out if what you see your child doing is a sign of ASD or typical behavior.

A diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder is hard for any parent to hear, but children are not helped by taking a “wait and see” approach. If you suspect that your child has any kind of developmental delay, you should contact your state’s early intervention program as early as possible to give your child the chance at the best possible outcomes.

hanen-program-logoSharon Ascher, M.A., CCC-SLP

Speech-Language Pathologist

Certified to Provide: More Than Words® – The Hanen Program® for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder or Social Communication Difficulties

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