Two different people sent me questions revolving around a touchy subject : how do you approach a parent with your suspicion that his/her child has autism?
Hoo boy, that one’s a doozy. And this is going to be a long one.
First off, I will connect you with the M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers): https://www.m-chat.org/mchat.php
For more information: http://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis/screen-your-child
Now to answer the question: you do so VERY carefully. In fact, I would say that if you are not a close friend, close relative or medical professional, keep your mouth shut.
If you are a close friend or relative, wait for a moment when the child in question is doing something (or NOT doing something) that you’ve seen on this checklist, then just talk about it. Ask the parent what they think about the behavior that the child is exhibiting, but try not to be negative about it. Don’t offer a diagnosis. Try to get them to talk. Do they suspect anything? Just go carefully, gently, lovingly.
If you are a professional, use the M-CHAT. And know that if the parents are taking their child for their well-child visits, pediatricians SHOULD be doing developmental screenings by now. That’s what the M-CHAT is for.
I can guarantee you that being gentle with this conversation is going to be best. I can also almost guarantee you that it will be a painful conversation – and one to which your friend or relative may not react well. No one wants her/his child to have autism. If they suspect it, then the desperation they may be feeling - hoping that their own suspicions are not true - just may explode.
Perhaps our story will be illustrative: We were several months into our state’s Early Intervention Program. He qualified for it because of speech & language delays, as well as gross & fine motor delays. I can honestly tell you that autism was not on my radar whatsoever. I wasn’t in denial. It just never, ever occurred to me that this could be autism. I just thought he had delays, and with these therapies, he’d catch up by first grade or so.
Well, a the end of one of his 5 weekly therapy appointments, the therapist gave me some information on an upcoming conference that was coming up on autism, as if I knew already. She thought I knew. It was just very matter-of-fact, given to me as she was headed out the door, no big deal. But it was a HUGE deal. After she left, I was FURIOUS. How DARE she suggest that just because he has some delays, he has friggin’ autism???? I called another of his therapists and cried and swore and was infurated, completely indignant about this other therapist thinking my son had autism. She listened and agreed that it was inappropriate, and probably told me a white lie by agreeing with me that he’d probably outgrow it by elementary school.
It wasn’t until at least 18 months later when I saw a video of a child with autism, acting very much the way T did, that I believed. It wasn’t anyone telling me. It was a very quite moment, and anyone watching me would never have known the monumental realization to which I had just come. I was slowly directed toward autism information, and when I saw my son in those videos, that’s when I knew.
So go carefully. Provide information but not a guess at a diagnosis. Watch & listen for an opening. And then don’t disappear.