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Difference Between Developmental Delays and Autism

Difference Between Developmental Delays and Autism

Although some of the signs and symptoms of developmental delays and autism may look the same, they are two different conditions.


It’s important for parents to understand the differences and know when delays in their children’s development are normal and when they could be a sign of autism or other developmental disorders. 


Children with autism usually experience developmental delays in one or more areas, but not every child who experiences a delay in their development has autism.


When autism or other developmental disorders are diagnosed at a young age, early intervention can greatly improve your child’s development.


Developmental Delays Vs Autism


What is a developmental delay?

In simple terms, a developmental delay is when a child doesn’t hit certain well-established developmental milestones within the expected timeframes. 


Developmental milestones are split up into different age groups, for children from two months old up to five years old. They are based on the average rates at which children have been observed to develop in different areas.


There are four main categories of developmental delays:


  • Cognitive (mental and problem-solving abilities)
  • Sensorimotor (movement and physical skills)
  • Speech and language (talking and communicating in other ways)
  • Socioemotional delays (experience, expression, and management of emotions)


For example, speech delays are when a child is learning to form speech sounds and develop language skills at a slower rate than average. When your child has this type of development delay, it doesn’t mean they are autistic. They might just be what’s known as a “late talker.”


While developmental delays can be concerning to parents, they are more common than you might think — approximately 10-15% of preschool-aged children experience some form of delay in their development.


All children develop at different rates, and there are many different possible reasons for developmental delays. Minor delays in development are usually not a cause for alarm, but significant delays or delays in multiple areas might be signs of something bigger, such as autism.

What is autism?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a term that refers to a broad range of conditions that can be categorized into different subtypes. People with autism often struggle in the areas of communication and social skills, but the degree to which they struggle is highly variable.


Common autism signs in children include:


  • Difficulties communicating and interacting with others
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Using only non-verbal communication
  • Speaking only in single words or repeating words
  • Finding things like bright lights and noises overwhelming, stressful, and uncomfortable
  • Not making eye contact
  • Not talking as much as other children their age
  • Not responding to their own name
  • Not smiling back at you when you smile at them


Many of the above signs of autism can also be caused by a developmental delay, such as a speech delay, but they are usually more severe in children with autism.


It’s important to note that autism is not a mental illness. Rather, it is a condition that causes a child’s brain to function differently. 


Every case of autism is different, and people with autism will have it for their whole lives. While this condition does not have a “cure,” it can be treated to help children develop faster and learn to do certain things that are more challenging for them.


Some people with more extreme cases of autism may remain nonverbal for their whole lives, but many of those who experience speech delays and other struggles with communication early on in their lives can learn to communicate fairly normally with the right assistance and support.


What Should I Do if I Suspect My Child Has a Developmental Delay or Autism?


In order to spot developmental delays or possible signs of autism in your children, you should familiarize yourself with the different developmental milestones for children.


In terms of speech, if your child is not starting to speak between 18-24 months of age, it could be a sign of a speech delay, which may or may not be caused by autism. But there are many other signs of developmental delays to watch out for.


For a full list of developmental milestones, you can check the CDC’s developmental milestones page, where you can even download a checklist. The page breaks down milestones in social and emotional development, language and communication development, cognitive development, and movement and physical development by age.


If you notice any signs of developmental delays in your child, you should take them to get evaluated by a professional, such as your general practitioner or a pediatric specialist or therapist. They will be able to provide you with more guidance and let you know if your child may be experiencing some type of condition other than a minor delay in their development.


If your GP or pediatric doctor thinks that your child might have autism or another condition, the next step is to take them to an early intervention specialist.


How early intervention can help

When a child is diagnosed with autism or other developmental conditions, the best thing to do to aid with their development is to start early intervention as soon as possible.


Early intervention specialists can screen for and diagnose autism and other developmental conditions in children from a very young age. They can then develop a treatment plan to help your child overcome early challenges with communication, social skills, cognitive abilities, and physical development.


The sooner your child is diagnosed and begins early intervention treatment, the better their chances are of developing important life skills at a young age. Ideally, children should start early intervention close to the age of three.


Get Support for Developmental Delays and Autism at ECCM


Our early intervention program at ECCM is available for children up to the age of five. If you notice signs of developmental delays in your child, contact us today to set up a screening for autism and other conditions that may be behind the delays.


Our compassionate team of early intervention specialists provides services to help your child improve their skills in the areas of ​​physical, cognitive, communication, adaptive, and socioemotional development.