Why Autism Diagnoses Are Often Delayed

For children on the autism spectrum, the earlier they receive specialized support, the better outcome they are likely to have. Such early intervention can start in toddlerhood. But children sometimes miss out on that crucial intervention for a variety of reasons.

In many cases kids initially receive a diagnosis of speech-language impairments, ADHD or sensory issues, and it’s not until the social and academic challenges of school increase— around the age of 5 or 6 — that the child receives an autism diagnosis.

It’s not that these other diagnoses are necessarily wrong. It is estimated that 30 to 40 percent of children on the autism spectrum do also have ADHD, and sensory challenges are so common in kids with autism they are considered a symptom of the disorder.

But all too often, once a diagnosis is reached, parents and clinicians stop looking carefully at symptoms that would also indicate an autism diagnosis, which would change the treatment significantly.

While these children are getting treatment for ADHD or sensory issues, they’re missing out on therapy that can have a much more important impact on their lives.

Read more about delayed diagnosis here.

Why girls with autism are often overlooked

Boys are diagnosed with autism at more than four times the rate of girls. The disorder is more common in boys, but because girls often don’t fit the stereotyped image of someone with autism, many girls go undiagnosed and suffer as a result. Some reasons for the missed diagnosis include:

  • Girls’ symptoms are often less obvious. Unlike boys with autism, who may express frustration by being disruptive or aggressive, girls are trained to be cooperative, so they’re not as likely to be referred for an evaluation.
  • While boys on the spectrum may be intensely focused on things like trains or computer games, girls often have special interests that seem typical for girls their age, like Disney movies or animals, so they don’t stand out.
  • Good at imitating what they see around them, girls tend to have better eye contact or social interaction than autistic boys. So even though they’re struggling with social communication and relationships, they’re more likely to “pass” as neurotypical until as late as middle school.
  • Girls struggling with undiagnosed autism often develop depression, anxietyor poor self-esteem, and clinicians may not look beyond these symptoms.

Read more about how girls are undiagnosed here.