In a world where the autism spectrum diagnoses are up 78% in the past 10 years, it is difficult as a parent not to worry when you notice something “abnormal” in your child’s behavior. From a lack of social interaction with peers to frequent tantrums, parents find it easy to believe their child is suffering from some sort of disability that must be treated. Often, they will take their child to a psychologist at a very young age in order to have them screened and tested for a diagnosis. But what if taking your child to a psychologist at such a young age is doing more harm than good? What if all the symptoms point to a diagnosis of autism, but in reality those symptoms mean something else? Is it possible that children are being misdiagnosed with autism?
According to Enrico Gnaulati, author of Back to Normal: Why Ordinary Childhood Behavior is Mistaken for ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, “Over 10% of children with autism have been misdiagnosed. We are also dramatically overdiagnosing it in everyday behavior.” Parents sometimes jump to conclusions when their child is undergoing changes or developing in their early years. Any sort of characteristics that seem different from those that are normally expected in children can automatically send a red flag.
However, parents should not immediately push the panic button when they observe their child exhibiting “odd” personality traits. Instead, it is important to consider other factors as reasons for autistic-like qualities. Take a look at the following behaviors that are often confused with autism:
He’s an introvert.
Many children who are erroneously labeled as autistic are in fact just introverts. Before answering questions, they like to take the time to think of a valid response, weighing all of the facts before offering their opinion. It may take several seconds, or even minutes, before the questioner receives a response, because the child is processing massive amounts of information and trying to carefully select the correct answer. Instead of considering this, adults automatically deem the behavior as “strange” and a connection to autism.
Author of Revenge of the Introvert, Laurie Helgoe, says, “Introverts seek time alone because they want time alone.” Unlike children with autism who prefer to be alone from people, introverts want alone time to explore their personal interests and indulge in intellectual opportunities. Having that solitude allows them immerse themselves fully in their scientific or mathematical projects without any interruptions. It is common for introverts to have limited interaction with those with dissimilar interests, however they become quite conversational and extroverted when interacting with those they have much in common with. Children with autism, on the other hand, show a disinterest in communicating with people in general.
It is normal for highly intelligent students to have trouble developing strong social skills. However, to assume social issues with gifted students as a form of autism is rather presumptuous.
Research shows that it is difficult for gifted students to find relatable peers because of the pressure and demands of their perfectionism tendencies. Much too often, teachers will see an easy answer to this social awkwardness; the student has an autism spectrum disorder and needs to see a behavioral specialist. Instead, it may just be that the student has different interests than those of his fellow classmates. Rather than playing video games with the other kids, he is more interested in having a conversation about how the video games were made and what makes them work.
It could be a genetic disorder.
Up to 50% of children with a genetic disorder are misdiagnosed as having autism. The disorder, called 22q11.2 deletion syndrome, can lead to developmental delays, social awkwardness, and anxiety. Since these symptoms overlap with those of autism and only 1 out of 2000 people are diagnosed with this syndrome, it is common for a specialist to confuse the two with one another.
So how can one differentiate autism from 22q? Children with 22q do in fact have social impairments, similar to those with autism, however they are often not as severe. According psychiatrist Tony J. Simon, who conducted a study on 29 children who had either autism or 22q, children with 22q, “…did not have a classic case of autism spectrum disorder. They often have very high levels of social motivation. They get a lot of pleasure from social interaction, and they’re quite socially skilled.”
The study also consisted of administering the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and the Social Communication Questionnaire – none of the children diagnosed with 22q scored high enough on the tests to be classified as autistic.
How can I prevent my child from being misdiagnosed?
It is important to remember that each child is different and should not be categorized or labeled at the first sign of abnormal behavior. Parents may feel the need to rush their child immediately to a behavioral specialist upon witnessing anything odd, however this can often do more harm than good. By labeling a child with a diagnosis, especially in their early years, we are allowing them to assume that role and accept that as their fate and endure the stigma that comes along with it.
Being treated for autism when a child does not in fact have autism can have negative affects. If a child is gifted and we misdiagnose it as autism, we are devaluing his intelligence by trying to rid him of discussing intellectual topics out of the social norm. Children with 22q who are diagnosed as autistic suffer in the long run if they are not given the proper treatment for their disorder. They may develop other mental health disorders later in life, such as schizophrenia.
Avoid this by understanding your child’s needs and characteristics, and always do a lot of research. If you believe there is a chance your child may be autistic, do not settle for just one opinion. Speak to several behavioral specialists who have experience with many different students, such as gifted and introverted ones. All other options should be ruled out before designating a diagnosis and moving forward with treatment.