As understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has grown, so has parents’ anxiety about what is and what isn’t autism. ASD reflects a wide range of problems and functional abilities. “Children at the severely affected end tend to have more problems, and more pronounced problems, so the diagnosis is usually more clear,” says Kimberly Giuliano, MD, a pediatrician with a special interest in autism. Children at the milder end of the autism spectrum are those with Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive development disorder/not otherwise specified (PDD/NOS). “Parents may perceive their problems to be variants of normal and not bring them up with the pediatrician,” says Dr. Giuliano.
Difficulties with verbal communication and social skills, and repetitive behaviors or narrowed interests are hallmarks of autism. But gray areas overlap both normal development and ASD. Kids with delayed speech could fall into either category, for example. “What separates autism from primary speech delay is that children who are autistic have social problems as well,” says Dr. Giuliano.
Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about your child’s development. Even for an isolated developmental delay, occupational therapy, speech therapy or social skills training will serve your child well. And if multiple delays point to ASD, then prompt evaluation, appropriate therapies and medications will allow a child to reach his or her full potential -- including college, careers and marriage for some. “We see some children significantly affected by the disorder progress along the spectrum to become very high-functioning,” says Dr. Giuliano. “And some higher-functioning children have what appears to be a normalization of their behaviors or problems.” Read on for seven more gray areas that could be a sign of autism.