You might think that the sooner you accept and embrace an official diagnosis of autism, the better. After all, knowledge is power, and the sooner you know, the sooner you can get your child the help and services needed. But knowledge does not have to be tied to a label, and there are circumstances in which it might be more beneficial to your child and yourself to delay an official diagnosis.
When to embrace an official diagnosis of autism:
If your child is in, or will be entering into, a traditional school system.
An official diagnosis of autism can shift attitudes from ‘this child is a problem’ to ‘this child needs additional support’. And this shift can make all the difference in your child’s school experience. Most school systems are designed with the typically-developing child in mind, and rather than fight your way uphill, presenting a diagnosis can result in extra services and help. More than that, it can foster understanding and help teachers and other staff workers see your child in a different, more positive light.
If your child’s self esteem is at risk.
For many years, my son navigated his life blissfully unaware of any diagnosis, which, at the time, worked for him (and for all of us, as a family). Unencumbered, he didn’t see the differences between himself and his peers. This changed as he drew closer to puberty. As I began to see him struggling to understand why certain social situations challenged him in ways that did not challenge his peers, he reached a point where he wanted to understand why he was different. This was the right time for him to accept and understand his diagnosis. He was ready, in other words, to take on the weight of it in a way that was not a burden.
If additional services are needed.
An official diagnosis of autism can be a very helpful tool to have in your pocket if your child requires additional services such as ABA therapy, speech therapy, or other support. It can get you in the door, open up locks, and provide your child with what he or she needs.
When to delay an official diagnosis of autism:
Now, when to delay? Before I begin, I want to make something clear:
Rather, it means investigating the possibility, having diagnostic tests performed, and then tucking that potential diagnosis in your back pocket, ready to use as a tool when you need it. We’re not burying our heads in the sand here. We’re giving the child time and space to grow into who he or she has the potential to be. This delay does not mean that you should delay testing or delay diagnosis. Early diagnosis and early treatment are very important, but you get to control the information and what you do with it.
When my son was unofficially diagnosed, I looked past the diagnosis’ at the top of the paper and focused instead on the list of characteristics associated with each. This list became my parenting goal for my child: we’d see how many characteristics we could address as my son grew. I viewed it similarly to how I would parent my typically-developing children, but in addition to teaching my son the ABCs, how to tie his shoes, and how to ride a bike at each developmental stage, I would also teach eye contact, verbal skills, and so on.
Delay the conversation about an official diagnosis of autism if:
Your child is not in the traditional school system.
If you’re homeschooling your child, there’s no need to alert teachers and staff to his or her unique needs.
If your child is young enough to not be personally aware of his or her differences.
This may not be the time to burden your child with his or her diagnosis…a diagnosis they may not understand yet. Rather, this may be the time to allow him to grow into himself, or allow her to reach certain milestones without the support of additional services. That day may–and probably will–come, but in the meantime, it’s okay to allow your child to come into his own, at his own pace.
Remember, as a parent, you can re-assess at any time, and you should never be afraid or reluctant to play that ‘diagnosis card’ when the time is right for you and your child.