Autism Vs. Developmental Delay

Really there isn’t a “vs.” here. Autism IS a developmental delay, of sorts. Developmental delays separate from autism itself are only notable if they delay a child’s development by more than six months. Because children grow and develop at their own pace, milestones for development are more of a guideline than an expectation.

For example, let’s say a child is supposed to walk between twelve to fifteen months. Early walkers can start as young as nine months while late walkers can start at seventeen or eighteen months. However if your child isn’t at least trying to pull up on the furniture and walk around it with one hand on it by the late walker stage, that’s a developmental delay worth taking note of.

Does that mean they have autism? No.
Does it mean they have some other developmental delay or disorder? Maybe. If everything else about your child seems to be developing normally, you shouldn’t be really worried unless they still aren’t walking by the age of two. If you are taking them to their well baby checkups, the pediatrician will be able to assess the situation to see if there is a problem or not.

On the flip side, if they also have problems with eye contact, mutual friendly smiles and gazes, understanding or speaking, small and/ or large muscle control, or any other developmental delay markers for autism, then it’s possible they are on the spectrum. Again, noting when your child accomplishes all the expected milestones and writing it down will help your pediatrician decide how serious the situation is. A pediatrician can also refer you to an early childhood developmental program where you child can get extra help to catch up to peers prior to going to school full time.

Can autism coincide with developmental delays?
No, because the developmental delays associated with autism are already part of the disorder’s diagnostic criteria. They do not exist together because they already are, if that makes any sense. However, one or two developmental delays can exist apart from autism and be a separate diagnosis where autism isn’t clearly the problem. The biggest delays that might signal one or the other is a social deficit or language deficit. Of course, it can only be one deficit in these two areas for it to be just a developmental delay; having both these deficits is autism.

Think of autism this way: an array of co-existing developmental delays co-occurring. This is entirely different from a single developmental delay, that with or without additional therapy or support, the child outgrows. A child never outgrows autism, but the symptoms can be improved upon through lots of therapy. An initial diagnosis of autism might be changed if all of a sudden the child no longer has the symptoms. Second and even third opinions from behavior analysts will show ahead of time if the first was incorrect and the diagnosis of autism was presumptive.

In the meantime, don’t assume anything about your child until a team of certified specialists can tell you if there’s really a problem there. Weekly therapy with a birth to three program counselor helps every child, even if they end up not having autism. The services are provided by government agencies, so the parents rarely have to pay anything. Community supports for autism allow your child to get together with other children who definitely have autism and you might see quite a difference between them and your own child. It doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have autism; it just means they might not and it’s just a developmental delay instead.

Find more on, “The Early Signs of Autism


  1. “A new study reveals that children with developmental delays, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), are up to 50 percent more likely to be overweight or obese compared with the general population.”

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