How to Respond to an Autism Diagnosis

If a child in your care has just been diagnosed with autism, you may be feeling a bit shell-shocked. You’re not alone.

For 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that one in 54 children had autism—with the rate being 4.3 times higher in children assigned male at birth than in children assigned female at birth. And the prevalence has increased since then, meaning the number of children diagnosed with autism just keeps going up.

As one of a growing number of parents coping with the news of autism in the family, you have plenty of resources to tap into. But first, you’ll need to digest the news, share it with close friends and family you feel comfortable with, and spend some time figuring out which path is best for you and your family.

This article will list some recommended first steps to take on your journey after a child in your care is diagnosed with autism.

Parent and child looking at mobile phone

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Step 1: Confirm the Diagnosis

With autism increasingly common and autism awareness at an all-time high, pediatricians, teachers, and even family members may have autism at the front of their minds. But while autism is not uncommon, it can be tricky to diagnose accurately.

Symptoms of autism—which may include late speech, sensory dysfunction, social communications deficits, and anxiety—are also symptoms of many other disorders.

If a child in your care was diagnosed by a team of experienced professionals, chances are their diagnosis was correct. But if you have any questions either about the diagnosis or the diagnosing expert, it’s a good idea to get a second opinion.

Step 2: Take a Deep Breath

If you’re sure the diagnosis is correct, step back, take a deep breath, and give yourself time to react, discuss, and digest the news. No one expects to have a child with disabilities, and autism can be (at least sometimes) a tough diagnosis to manage. Now is also a good time to remember these important facts:

  • Autism is a marathon, not a sprint. If the diagnosis is accurate, a child will always have autism. Rushing into action and exhausting your time, money, and energy won’t help. A well-thought-through plan of action can help a child with autism while also allowing the rest of their family members to thrive.
  • Autism is not a disease. Autism is a developmental disorder, not a physical or mental illness. A child with autism isn’t sick, and they won’t become sick as a result of an autism diagnosis. In fact, many adults with higher functioning autism see autism as an integral part of who they are. Some even see it as a gift.
  • People with autism are incredibly different from one another. Some people with autism are nonverbal, highly verbal, sociable, antisocial, highly successful, unable to function independently, have intellectual disabilities, and are geniuses. When you’ve met one person with autism, remember you’ve only met one person with autism. Others’ experiences may not be relevant to your situation. It is important to not generalize.
  • While there are a range of ways to respond to or treat autism, safety is most important. There are many good treatments for autism and just as many risky treatments. But because there is no cure for autism, it will be up to you to sort through and choose the treatments and programs that are right for you and your family. Research shows autistic people are more likely to experience abuse and neglect than people who are not autistic. Ensuring your autistic loved ones are safe throughout their lives is of prime importance for this reason.
  • Autism can make your family stronger. Some families break up because of an autism diagnosis. There are also families that become much stronger because of autism. With plenty of communication, shared responsibility, and shared joys, your family can become one of those that benefit from autism.

Step 3: Set Up Basic Services and Supports

The good news is that more people know about autism due to its increase in prevalence. Some school districts are ready for children on the autism spectrum, as are local clinics, therapists, support groups, and more. Here are some first steps to take:

  • Connect with your school district for early intervention. Children under age 6 are eligible for early intervention, which, in most cases, includes a whole package of resources. These may include special education preschool and summer programs; traveling speech, occupational, and/or physical therapists; and even cognitive therapy for parents.
  • Reach out to parent groups. You may not find parents whose child has exactly the same needs as yours. Still, you will absolutely find parents who know all about the school district’s strengths and weaknesses, who have notes on every therapist in town, and who can include you in parent and family support groups. Get to know them.
  • Find a babysitter (or respite care). Like most children, a child with autism may be easygoing or very tough to handle. Either way, you and other family members may need at least some time away from them . Find a reliable person or family member who can connect with and manage the child and their needs, even if just for a few hours at a time.

Step 4: Start Learning

There’s so much to know about autism that it could take you years to learn it all. But you can get the basics pretty quickly by skimming through websites such as those managed by the CDC and the Autism Society. You’ll probably want to go well beyond the basics, though, so here are some tips for exploring:

  • Stick with trusted sources, and avoid those that advocate “biomedical” treatments such as chelation, stem-cell therapies, and other risky and unproven techniques. While a few pharmaceuticals can help with symptoms like anxiety, there is no biological cure for autism.
  • Learn about and consider both behavioral and developmental therapies. Each has its pros and cons, and you can mix and match.
  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is the “gold standard,” but many adults with autism have issues with behavioral “training.” Look at different types of ABA, too.
  • Floortime and relationship development intervention (RDI) are developmental therapies but may not be offered through your school or covered by insurance.
  • Explore options for speech, occupational, and social skills therapies. While your school may offer these, many options are available, including sensory integration, various social skills curricula, and much more.
  • Dig into options for supplemental and summer programs. A child will typically qualify for Extended School Year programs, but these may or may not be ideal for a particular child’s needs and abilities. Could they benefit from a disability camp? How about a music or math camp, with or without supports?

Step 5: Remember to Enjoy Time Quality Time

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with a child’s autism, but it’s important to remember that a child is still a kid—a kid in your care. It can be tricky to build bonds with a child with autism, but it gets easier when you find ways to play, connect, and just have fun together.

Summary

After you receive a diagnosis of autism for a child, you can start with several steps. You may want to confirm the diagnosis, give yourself time to react, set up basic services and supports, and start learning about what therapies and interventions are available.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that once the basics are in place, you can sit back and know that you’ve done a good job for the child in your care. Even if you do nothing more, you’ve provided yourself and the child in your life with the most critical programs, therapies, and supports you’ll need for years to come.

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2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Maenner MJ, Shaw KA, Baio J, et al. Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years—Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 sites, United States, 2016. MMWR Surveill Summ. 2020;69(SS-4):1–12. doi:10.15585/mmwr.ss6904a1

  2. Weiss JA, Fardella MA. Victimization and Perpetration Experiences of Adults With Autism. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:203. Published 2018 May 25. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00203

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