A Practical Explanation of Autism, Special Needs and Developmental Delays

The terms “autism,” “special needs,” and “developmental delays” are everywhere these days. It seems like every time we turn on the television or open a newspaper, a brand new study is out telling us how common these disorders are in our nation’s children. Indeed, recent estimates have indicated that as many as 1 in 50 US children are afflicted with some form of autism and as many as 15% of all children ages 0-17 have special needs.

But once the headline-grabbing statistics are released – and parents are sufficiently panicked – it is very rare that any reporter or television correspondent bothers to explain to parents exactly what these disorders are or what they can do if they think their child may be afflicted.  The goal of this post is to do just that.

Let’s start with autism. Autism is really a wide variety of social disorders that exist on what is called the “autism spectrum.” The disorder has nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence. In fact, as popularized in the film Rain Man, individuals with autism can be extremely smart. The lynch-pin of autism is an inability to process certain social cues and stimuli that exist in our world. Signs of autism may include a disinterest to the world and other people, an inability to talk and engage with others as well as stalled development.

Now, “special needs” is a broader category than autism. The definition differs from state to state, but “children with special needs” is generally considered to be any child with or without an identified disability, health or mental health condition that requires special services and supports. Developmental pediatricians or licensed psychologists typically diagnose a child with special needs by examining functional development against an expected baseline in such areas as cognition, communication, motor, adaptive, social/emotional and sensory abilities as well as using a clinical diagnostic approach to identify illnesses and special conditions.  A child with severe allergies to dairy products could therefore have “special needs.” So could a 4-year child who cannot stand to be more than a few feet from his mother.

That brings us to “developmental delays,” which is really just a subset of special needs. This definition also varies from state to state. Where a child has delayed development in any one of the functional development areas listed above – as opposed to, for example, a chronic illness or condition impacting one of these areas – that child may be said to have a developmental delay. For example, at nine months of age, children are typically expected to be able to sit on their own; if they cannot, they may have a developmental delay.

While pediatricians and child psychologists are trained to diagnose autism, special needs and developmental delays, it is of course the parents who are best positioned to identify possible problems in the first instance. One way to do that is to actively consult with your child’s teachers regarding difficulties in school, such as with writing, reading or following instructions.  In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain a developmental checklist for parents to use to check their child’s developmental progress.  Likewise, the National Center Dissemination Center for children with Disabilities is another resource for developmental milestones.

The day a parent learns that their child has been diagnosed with autism, special needs or a developmental delay could be one of their worst. But the good news is that there are resources available to help children cope with and even overcome the disorder. In particular, federal legislation has encouraged the states to provide assistance to families with children with special needs, autism and developmental delays. To learn more about your state’s programs, please go the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center website at http://nichcy.org/families-community/help/stateagencies.

Whether you are a first time parent or an experienced one, one thing is for sure – you are always your child’s best advocate. Make sure to educate yourself and partner with your child’s teachers and physicians to identify any possible developmental issues. If there are any, make sure to take full advantage of the various programs and resources designed to help children with such conditions.

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Shirael Pollack is a pediatric physical therapist and owner of Watch Me Grow Sensory Gym and Speech Language Center in Manhattan, New York.  She is devoted to helping children with a wide variety of physical and developmental challenges by providing therapy that is both fun and effective. In addition to her practice at Watch Me Grow, Shirael is an active member of the National Autism Association NY Metro Chapter where she currently serves as the Chairperson of the Fundraising Committee.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the blog contributor’s. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. Writers may have conflicts of interest, and their opinions are their own.

One thought on “A Practical Explanation of Autism, Special Needs and Developmental Delays

  1. Hello

    I would like to be informed about online classes for parenting children who have developmental delays and autism.

    Thanks,
    Sharlene Chesson

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