Every child develops at a different pace, and that’s okay as long as developmental milestones are met within a certain timeframe. If you notice that your child is developing more slowly than children of the same age, is having trouble communicating with you, is avoiding eye contact, is exhibiting behavioral outbursts — or has lost previously acquired skills — talk to your pediatrician, as these are some early signs of autism in children.
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder (related to the nervous system) marked by impaired social interaction and communication skills, and repetitive behaviors. It’s a “spectrum” disorder, which means symptoms and functioning can range from mild to severe.
Traditionally, the term “autism” has been used to diagnose children with symptoms on the more severe end of the spectrum, and the terms “Asperger syndrome” and “pervasive development disorder-not otherwise specified” (PDD-NOS) have been used to diagnose children on the milder end of the autism spectrum.
Today, these types are collectively referred to as “autism spectrum disorder,” or ASD. This is because while all children with autism have difficulties along one or more of the same areas of development, they do not share the exact same symptoms or patterns of behavior.
Nemours Specialists Are Experts at Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders in Children
Diagnosing children with an autism spectrum disorder is complex and requires comprehensive evaluation by experienced pediatric specialists in different medical disciplines. Early intervention is proven to significantly improve symptoms and offer your child the best chance to adapt, grow and thrive into adulthood. That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor sooner, rather than later.
At Nemours, our teams of autism specialists — including psychologists and psychiatrists, child neurologists, neuropsychologists, developmental pediatricians, occupational/speech and language therapists, and applied behavior analysis therapists — provide compassionate, comprehensive autism evaluations and treatments to help your child have the brightest, most productive future possible.
For Appointments: (302) 651-4200
Hours: Monday–Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
If you’ve made an appointment, please be sure to bring along the following items to help us check you in as efficiently as possible:
- photo ID
- medical and pharmacy insurance cards
- preferred pharmacy name and phone number
- names of all medications, including over-the-counter medication, your child is currently taking
- guardianship and custody papers, if a legal guardian rather than a parent accompanies your child
- any forms required for school, camp, sports, etc.
- a list of prior immunizations
- Patient Presents Without Legal Guardian (PDF)
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Note: A parent or legal guardian must be with a child for a first visit.
Resources for Patients & Families
At Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Del., we’re committed to providing the treatments, tools and supports needed to create the happiest, most productive life possible for children with an autism spectrum disorder and their families.
Our duPont Hospital for Children developmental pediatricians are uniquely experienced to evaluate, diagnose and treat autism in children, from infants to adolescents. Our autism experts also include a team of pediatric neurologists, neuropsychologists, psychologists, psychiatrists and therapists (mental health, speech and language, physical and occupational therapy) and others who work with you to give your child the best chance for success at home, at school and in the future.
Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum Throughout the Delaware Valley
Through early screening and educational training, the autism specialists at duPont Hospital for Children are actively involved in identifying autism spectrum disorders in children at an early age, and teaching care providers how best to help their children thrive. We also help advocate for children to receive available services in the community and in school.
Research shows that early autism screening using a simple parent questionnaire can help identify the signs of autism and other developmental disorders in children as young as 12-18 months.
Through an initiative with our pediatric primary care offices (Nemours duPont Pediatrics locations in Delaware and Pennsylvania), our autism specialists from Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children provide pediatricians throughout our communities with the tools to recognize the early signs of autism so we can begin treatment as soon as possible, for the best results possible.
Diagnosing Autism in Children
Diagnosing autism in children is complex and often involves comprehensive medical and neurological evaluations and observations by a team of autism specialists. There are no blood tests or imaging studies that can confirm an autism diagnosis.
Autism spectrum disorders affect the development and function of your child’s socialization, communication and behavior. Early signs of autism typically occur in infants and children before age 3, but can also present later in childhood and the teenage years. Symptoms of an autism spectrum disorder may include:
- lack of eye contact
- language delays or speech with abnormal tone or rhythm
- no response when called
- overly preoccupied with one area of interest
- repetitive movements or words
- becomes disturbed when routines change
- prefers to play alone, retreats to his or her own world
- atypical play (may spin toys or line them up)
- may be sensitive to light, touch and sound
- stereotypical behaviors (flicking fingers, flapping hands, spinning)
Once referred to us for evaluation, either by your pediatrician or self-referral, you and your child will see a Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children specialist in autism in children who will begin the diagnostic process. This includes:
- physical exam
- complete medical history (including a detailed family history)
- medical records review
- school records review
- interviews with family and others who regularly interact with your child
- cognitive and language assessment
We may also use several types of questionnaires and standardized assessments to help us get a better picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. These may include:
- Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS)
- Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)
- Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist
- Peabody Developmental Motor Scales
- Bayley Scales of Infant Development
- Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS II)
The autism in children specialists at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont hospital for Children work together to evaluate and treat autism spectrum disorder in kids of all ages. Depending on your child’s needs, you may see one or more of the following pediatric specialists or providers:
- neurologist — a medical doctor who specializes in problems with the nervous system including developmental disorders, epilepsy and movement disorders (among other conditions related to the brain, spinal cord, nerves and muscles)
- psychologist — a licensed mental health professional with a doctorate degree who specializes in the study of childhood development as it relates to behaviors and emotions
- behavior analyst — a practitioner with at least a master’s degree who engages in the specific and comprehensive use of principles of learning and behavior to address skill deficits (communication, feeding, academics) and behavioral excess (tantrums, self-injurious behaviors, etc.)
- psychiatrist — a medical doctor with advanced training in diagnosing and treating mental illness. In addition to psychotherapy, child psychiatrists may prescribe medication therapy when necessary
- speech therapist — a professional with at least a master’s degree who specializes in the assessment and treatment of communication disorders
- rehabilitative therapist — physical therapists and occupational therapists who have at least a master’s degree, and who specialize in the development of gross (walking, running, jumping) and fine (smaller movements with the fingers) motor skills; occupational therapists can also address sensory processing problems
- genetics — medical doctors who study how diseases are passed down in families
- audiology/ear, nose, and throat (ENT) — doctors and other professionals who specialize in hearing, balance and related disorders
- gastroenterology (GI) — doctors who specialize in disorders of the digestive tract
- neuro-imaging — specialists who administer various imaging tests, such as CT scans and MRIs, that can help assess the structure and function of the brain
- case manager — a professional, often a social worker, who can help you and your family solve and cope with problems and provide guidance and resource information about mental, behavioral and emotional issues
Of course, if you’re the parent or caregiver of a child with autism, you’re also a major part of your child’s care team. A diagnosis of autism affects the whole family, so we’ll make sure you have the support you need to navigate your journey and become your child’s best advocate. We value your partnership every step of the way.
If your child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, we might refer you for further evaluation and genetic testing. Some common conditions associated with autism in children include:
Treatment for Autism in Children of All Ages
Recognizing and treating an autism spectrum disorder early on (from infancy to age 3) is ideal because this is a time when critical brain development occurs. But it’s never too late to start. Many children are diagnosed on the milder end of the autism spectrum later in childhood and into adolescence, and they too will benefit significantly from medicines and therapies.
There is no one medicine or intervention that completely manages or cures autism. Just as each child with an autism spectrum disorder is different, there are many different treatments that can help reduce and manage the symptoms.
Once a diagnosis has been made, our autism specialists will offer recommendations tailored to your child’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, we might recommend:
- behavioral therapy — like applied behavioral analysis (ABA), an accepted method that uses behavioral psychology techniques to improve your child’s language, social and behavioral skills
- psychotherapy and counseling — such as cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy to teach your child (and family) coping skills and strategies
- medicines — to manage your child’s symptoms and other conditions that can occur with autism such as anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, etc.
- speech and/or language therapy — to help your child communicate more effectively by improving conversation and social skills
- physical therapy — to strengthen your child’s physical movement and coordination
- occupational therapy — to improve motor skills and also help your child overcome difficulty with touch, smell, sound or movement (sensory processing)
We provide these services on-site at the hospital and at Nemours duPont Pediatrics, Voorhees, in New Jersey. However, your child’s public school and certain state agencies may offer some of these services at no cost to you. Our team can help you find and advocate for services for your child.
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a scientific approach to learning that has been used with great success with children on the autism spectrum. Its goal is to reinforce desired behaviors through a system of consistent, immediate rewards, and to decrease problem behaviors by not allowing them to be effective (for example, a child will not get a toy if they throw a tantrum, but they will if they attempt to use speech). We also analyze the function of your child’s behavior. In other words, we look at why a child is doing a certain behavior and then teach a socially appropriate alternative behavior.
ABA works best when families are actively involved and able to carry over techniques to everyday life. To that end, our ABA therapists follow up with families regularly, carefully tracking the progress of treatment and tweaking the plan as necessary.
In addition to the interventions noted above, we offer complete, specialized assessments and customization of assistive technology aids to improve communication, learning and mobility for children with autism including:
- computer-assisted writing and learning — helps children with fine motor and visual-motor impairments, learning disabilities, auditory processing disorders and more
- augmentative communication — helps children with profound challenges overcome visual, motor, positioning and mobility difficulties that may influence their ability to communicate
Autism is a lifelong condition that evolves as your child grows and matures. Our autism specialists continue to provide ongoing follow-up and care to monitor your child’s:
- medication and therapy effectiveness
- healthy growth and development
- physical and emotional wellness
Our long-term goal is simple: To help children with autism reach their fullest capabilities, become as productive and independent as possible, and live a happy and healthy life.
Long before “aging out” of pediatric specialty care — and into the adult health system — we prepare teens with autism to take responsibility and manage their health as appropriate for their individual capabilities. Our Transition of Care program ensures that young people understand their diagnosis, treatments and other aspects involved with having a chronic medical condition, including how to talk to doctors, insurance providers and much more.
No matter where your child receives care at Nemours, your medical team (including your primary care provider) can access your child’s medical history, test results and visit notes anytime through our award-winning electronic health record system.
You can also view parts of your child's health records, communicate with your Nemours care team, make appointments, request prescription refills and more through our MyNemours online patient portal.
The Nemours Commitment to Family-Centered Care
At Nemours, we recognize the importance of the family in the care and healing process. Because many of the children we see have chronic illnesses that require repeated visits, we build strong relationships with our families that foster respect, dignity and collaboration. We’re also committed to educating children and families about the medical condition, and how best to manage it. Our goal is to get your child back to the business of being a kid as quickly as possible.