Should You Tell Parents That Their Child "Looks Autistic?"

Lining Up Toys
Lining Up Toys. Getty

You're visiting a friend or relative -- or they're visiting you. They have an adorable toddler or preschooler. 

You notice that that their child seems to have some unusual behaviors -- perhaps they're not yet talking when they should be, or they're engaging in a lot of aimless flapping or rocking.  Or maybe they ARE talking, but they keep saying the same things over and over again.  Or they're talking to themselves and not engaging with other people.

Instead of playing with toys, they line them up or knock them down with no obvious purpose.

The child's parents appear to be oblivious to the fact that their child is different. They may even point out his or her behaviors as "cute," or "precocious."  Mom may say something like "Isn't it adorable how little Billy just loves to put all his little trucks in a row?"

You, however, are wondering -- "is this child autistic?  do his parents even have a clue?  should I say something?"

Before saying a word to the child's parents, here are some questions to ask yourself.

  1. How well do you understand child development?  Young children develop at very different rates. One typically-developing three year old may be verbal, potty trained, and able to identify numbers and letters while another is still in diapers and speaking in two-word sentences. Before assuming that you're seeing a child with serious challenges, check your knowledge of developmental milestones.
  1. How well do you know the child?  If you are seeing a child once or twice a year, you may be seeing only a very small part of the child's repertoire. He may be anxious or shy among strangers, but engaged and verbal with family and friends. Before saying anything about autism, considering gathering a bit more information -- "I'll bet Bobby has a lot more to say when all these strangers aren't around!"
  1. How well do you understand autism? There are many myths and misconceptions about autism, which means that you may be mistaking personal differences or sensitivities for a major developmental disorder. Some typically developing children are naturally shy in large groups, and many young children have a tough time with new people, new foods, loud noises, and disruptions to routines.
  2. What is your relationship to the child's parents?  If you're a grandparent, a sister, or a best friend, you may be in a position to bring up a difficult issue. Then again, depending upon your relationship, you may create negative emotions with little positive outcome.
  3. How are these parents likely to react? If you know the child's parents well, you may be able to predict their response to a suggestion that something might be wrong. Will they listen? Or will they throw up a wall and start to see you as a problem in their lives?
  4. What can you offer the parents if your perceptions are correct?  It's one thing to open up a Pandora's box of worry and anxiety. It's another thing to help parents cope with the outcome with resources, a listening ear, and other supports. If you're merely suggesting "there might be something very wrong with your child" and then walking away, it might be smarter to say nothing.

    It's not easy to stay quiet when you feel there's something important to be said. But if you're the wrong person speaking at the wrong time -- or if your information is not quite accurate -- you could cause more harm than good.

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