Autism diagnoses are more common, but no less challenging for families. Dartmouth Health Children’s offers tips for getting kids necessary supports

Image of adult and child hands hold a puzzle-piece printed autism ribbon

People are putting a little too much focus on labels. Everybody can have their differences. It's when those differences cause problems that we need to focus on them more.

Nina Sand-Loud, MD

When a child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can mean that their diagnosis and symptoms are as unique as the child, because it is just that—a spectrum. Treatment is never one-size-fits-all, and the definition of what qualifies as ASD has expanded in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a spike in diagnosis, with one in 36 children having the disorder in 2023, which is attributed to environmental factors, improved outreach, and increased awareness of ASD.

Difficulties with communication, social skills and interaction, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors, like preoccupation with patterns and routines, are often things kids grow out of, but in some kids, these are indicative of ASD. But with so many children now being diagnosed with ASD, just getting the diagnosis process started is difficult for many families. “Things have become very challenging because of the numbers seeking out evaluations,” said Nina Sand-Loud, MD, a child development pediatrician with Dartmouth Health Children’s.

For parents concerned that their child could have ASD, Sand-Loud recommends beginning by identifying your child’s challenges. Parents should determine what specifically in their child’s development and behavior concerns them, and what they observed, then raise those concerns with the child’s pediatrician. Next, talk with the child’s school or an early intervention program to get an evaluation if appropriate.

Initiating a school or early intervention program evaluation also means a child may be able to start treatment during the wait for an appointment. “We don't want a two-and-a-half-year-old waiting six months to see me before they get services,” Sand-Loud said. “That’s wasting valuable time. We know that from birth to age 5, the brain is ready to go, and so we want to get those supports into place. The goal of any diagnosis is to get support.”

When a child is diagnosed with ASD, treatment and intervention strategies are available and wide-ranging. They can include:

  • Behavior and communication therapies, such as applied behavior analysis
  • Educational therapies, which may take place at home, school, or in another location
  • Family therapy to help parents and other family members learn to help promote social interaction skills, manage problem behaviors, and teach daily living skills and communication
  • Additional therapies, which may include speech therapy to improve communication skills, occupational therapy to teach activities of daily living, and physical therapy to improve movement and balance

One of the most important things to remember is that ASD doesn’t equal a deficit. Children and adults with ASD can and do lead independent, happy and fulfilled lives, and supporting people with ASD and celebrating their neurodiversity benefits us all.

“People are putting a little too much focus on labels,” Sand-Loud said. “Everybody can have their differences. It's when those differences cause problems that we need to focus on them more.”

Some resources for families of children who have or may have ASD, in the Twin States and nationally, include:

About Dartmouth Health

Dartmouth Health, New Hampshire's only academic health system and the state's largest private employer, serves patients across northern New England. Dartmouth Health provides access to more than 2,000 providers in almost every area of medicine, delivering care at its flagship hospital, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (DHMC) in Lebanon, NH, as well as across its wide network of hospitals, clinics and care facilities. DHMC is consistently named the #1 hospital in New Hampshire by U.S. News & World Report, and recognized for high performance in numerous clinical specialties and procedures. Dartmouth Health includes Dartmouth Cancer Center, one of only 56 National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the nation, and the only such center in northern New England; Dartmouth Health Children’s, which includes Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, the state’s only children’s hospital, and multiple clinic locations around the region; member hospitals in Lebanon, Keene and New London, NH, and Bennington and Windsor, VT; Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire; and more than 24 clinics that provide ambulatory services across New Hampshire and Vermont. Through its historical partnership with Dartmouth and the Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth Health trains nearly 400 medical residents and fellows annually, and performs cutting-edge research and clinical trials recognized across the globe with Geisel and the White River Junction VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT. Dartmouth Health and its more than 13,000 employees are deeply committed to serving the healthcare needs of everyone in our communities, and to providing each of our patients with exceptional, personal care.

About Dartmouth Health Children's

Dartmouth Health Children's is the only comprehensive pediatric healthcare system in the region. Fully integrated in Dartmouth Health and anchored for more than 30 years by Children's Hospital at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (CHaD)—in Lebanon, NH—Dartmouth Health Children's promotes health, advances knowledge, and delivers the best patient and family-centered care for infants, children, and adolescents across New Hampshire and Vermont. Dartmouth Health Children's conducts groundbreaking research and educates the next generations of health professionals as the primary pediatric partner of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth. Highly skilled and collaborative child health professionals provide care in multiple settings across the region. Outpatient specialty visits and same-day surgery services are available at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center (CHaD) and Dartmouth Hitchcock Clinics Manchester. Primary care appointments in general pediatrics are available at Dartmouth Hitchcock Clinics in Bedford, Concord, Lebanon, Manchester and Nashua, NH and Bennington, VT; as well as at Dartmouth Health members: Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, Cheshire Medical Center, New London Hospital and Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center.