Autism Developmental Delays: An Overview

Understanding the relationship between autism and developmental delays is crucial for parents and caregivers. This overview will help demystify the connections between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and developmental delays, providing insights into what to expect and how to support autistic individuals.

autism developmental delays

What Are Developmental Delays?

Developmental milestones serve as markers of a child’s progress from infancy to early childhood, guiding healthcare professionals and caregivers in assessing typical development. These milestones encompass various domains, including social and emotional skills, language and communication abilities, cognitive capabilities, and physical milestones.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) categorizes these milestones into several groups:

  • Movement/Physical Development: Activities like crawling, walking, and fine motor skills.
  • Cognitive Development: Skills involving learning, thinking, and problem-solving.
  • Language/Communication Development: Abilities related to understanding and using language.
  • Social/Emotional Development: Skills in interacting with others and managing emotions.

As you can see, these milestones encompass various domains. According to the CDC, at 2 months, a typical milestone may include reacting to loud noises or looking at a caregiver’s face, while at 18 months, pointing to show items of interest or attempting to say three or more words besides “mama” or “dada” may be expected. 

Play-based assessments and developmental screenings are essential tools for identifying developmental delays in young children. If screening suggests a delay, a comprehensive developmental evaluation conducted by a trained professional follows.

The process may also lead to the creation of an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) if necessary, which outlines appropriate early intervention services tailored to the child’s requirements. By recognizing and addressing developmental delays early, caregivers can support children in achieving their full potential.

Autism and Developmental Delays

Children with autism often exhibit developmental delays. However, “developmental delays” can be an oversimplification, as autistic children may reach some milestones on time or even early, while others might be delayed or atypically developed.

Research has shown that a significant percentage of children with global developmental delay (GDD) also have ASD. One study analyzed 521 children with GDD and found that 62.3% also had ASD. The study used various scales to evaluate autism symptoms. 

Masked or Hidden Delays in Autism

While some autistic children exhibit clear signs of developmental delays, others may present with more subtle challenges. This phenomenon, often referred to as masked delays, can complicate the identification of ASD, particularly in certain groups of children.


Autism tends to manifest differently in girls, who may exhibit less overt symptoms compared to boys. Social expectations often stereotype girls as quiet, reserved, and less assertive, making it easier for autistic girls to mask their developmental delays. Consequently, they may be perceived as simply shy or introverted, delaying their diagnosis and intervention.

Black Children

Black children, particularly girls, are disproportionately underdiagnosed with autism, leading to delays in accessing vital support and services. Cultural biases, coupled with systemic barriers, contribute to this disparity, highlighting the importance of culturally sensitive and equitable diagnostic practices.

Children With Impressive Intelligence 

Some autistic children demonstrate remarkable abilities or talents in specific areas, masking underlying developmental delays. While they may excel in domains such as mathematics, music, or memorization, they may struggle with fundamental skills like social interaction or adaptive behavior. 

Children With Empathetic Siblings or Peers

In environments where empathetic siblings or peers actively support autistic children, their developmental delays may be overlooked or minimized. While well-intentioned, this form of assistance can hinder accurate assessments of the autistic individual’s capabilities and support needs.

Children of Parents With Autistic Traits

Studies have also shown that autistic children born to parents with autistic traits may encounter challenges in receiving timely intervention. Parental perceptions of “normal” development may influence their interpretation of their child’s behavior, potentially delaying access to essential services.

autism developmental delays

Common Developmental Delays in Autism

In ASD, developmental delays often manifest across various domains, impacting communication, social interaction, and motor skills. This section explores the common developmental challenges faced by autistic children, shedding light on language deficits, social difficulties, and the nuances of cognitive and motor skill development.

  • Language and Communication: Autistic children often face hurdles in verbal communication. Some may have limited speech, struggle with language comprehension, or exhibit atypical speech patterns such as echolalia. For instance, a child might repeat words or phrases out of context instead of engaging in meaningful conversation. 
  • Social Skills: Autistic children may find it difficult to interpret nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or body language, leading to misunderstandings in social situations. For example, a child might fail to make eye contact during conversations, affecting their ability to establish connections with peers and adults alike.
  • Cognitive Skills: Cognitive development in autistic children often presents as uneven, with strengths and weaknesses across different domains. While some may excel in areas like visual-spatial reasoning or memorization, they may struggle with abstract thinking or problem-solving tasks. 
  • Motor Skills: Fine and gross motor skill development can also be affected in autistic children. Difficulties with coordination, balance, or motor planning may manifest in activities like writing, tying shoelaces, or participating in sports. Some children may also exhibit repetitive or stereotypical movements, such as hand-flapping or rocking.

Vigilance in monitoring developmental milestones is crucial for detecting potential delays in children with autism. If significant delays or concerns arise in multiple areas of development, seeking a professional assessment from a qualified healthcare provider or developmental specialist is recommended.

Professional assessment facilitates the identification of appropriate interventions, ensuring they receive the support required to thrive. By closely monitoring developmental milestones and seeking professional assessment when needed, caregivers empower children with autism to navigate their developmental journey effectively.

autism developmental delays

The Takeaway

Understanding the nuances of autism and developmental delays helps in providing the best care and support for autistic individuals. Recognizing early signs, appreciating the diversity in development, and taking prompt action are key steps in fostering a supportive environment for children with autism.

For parents and caregivers, being informed and proactive can make a world of difference in the lives of autistic children. If you suspect your child has developmental delays or may be autistic, seek a professional evaluation. Early intervention can make a significant difference in supporting your child’s development.


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