Diagnosing Autism within the Pandemic

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Even before the pandemic, many families had to wait a long time for these development assessments. “Those who are already in need of protection will be more and more affected – families who already had limited access to primary care or who are under or not insured have had a harder time,” said Dr. Spinks-Franklin.

Now, she said, the pandemic puts these families at greater risk, as there is a likelihood of economic hardship from loss of jobs, underemployment or loss of health care benefits. The differences worsen and the chances of getting to the right clinic and the right healthcare professional decrease.

In the moment when families are isolated or may not have good access to health care, neurodevelopmental problems can be overlooked in these critical early years if the diagnosis would help children receive therapy. On the other hand, it can be mistakenly assumed that some children who do not have these underlying problems and are only responding to the strange and often anxious circumstances of living in a pandemic will show signs of autism.

Parents and even doctors may be concerned about Autism Spectrum Disorders in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety who are seen in unusual situations – in a parking lot, for example. “I reversed diagnoses,” said Dr. Lord. “It’s not surprising that a child looks a little less relaxed.”

Dr. Spinks-Franklin said the pressures of the pandemic on children may feel like other stressors and manifest as more extreme behavior such as more frequent tantrums or increased irritability.

“Anything that jumps is not ADHD. Anything that works is not autism, ”said Dr. Spinks-Franklin.

To understand whether a child’s extreme behavior represents chronic stress and increased frustration related to family needs, or a sign of neurodevelopmental disorder, it is important to determine if these behaviors existed before the pandemic, Dr. Spinks- Said Franklin.

If parents have concerns about a child’s development or behavior, a good place to start is to discuss the matter with the child’s primary care provider, who can also review the records with the parents and speak about the child’s early development.

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