Identifying Autism: UofSC expert speaks on how COVID-19 is impacting early diagnosis

As April marks another Autism Awareness Month, experts say the pandemic has presented challenges for identifying autism.
Updated: Apr. 13, 2021 at 7:12 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The hardships of the pandemic have shown us how COVID-19 has impacted nearly every aspect of normality.

For young children who may not be exhibiting normal social skills, it has affected how and when they may be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

As April marks another Autism Awareness Month, experts say the pandemic has presented challenges for identifying autism.

While masks and social distancing have proven their usefulness in fighting the battle against COVID-19, they’ve presented a new challenge for parents and teachers looking out for signs of autism.

“If the child is wearing a mask and if the psychologist is wearing a mask, I think it becomes really difficult to read their facial expressions to kind of see how they’re communicating non-verbally,” said Dr. Jessica Bradshaw from University of South Carolina’s Early Social Development and Intervention Lab. “As a psychologist, when we assess for autism, we’re interested in not only ‘How does that child interact with the psychologist,’ but ‘How do they interact with peers?’ When there’s a lack of social interaction, when school becomes all virtual, that becomes very difficult to assess.”

Bradshaw suggests finding families with same-age peers that you feel comfortable interacting with to get a good idea of how your child is engaging with others, while still following COVID-19 guidelines.

WIS asked what signs you should look out for.

“Language delays, decreased social emotional reciprocity -- meaning, difficulty relating to others and engaging in a fluid social interaction,” Dr. Bradshaw said. “Differences in making eye contact, insistence on sameness and routines, difficulty with transitions.”

As this month provides another opportunity to understand, assist, and celebrate the autism community, Bradshaw said it’s important to cast stigma aside and find ways to come together.

“We all have different ways of interacting and different ways of learning,” Dr. Bradshaw said. “Autism is just one example of a way that we can be neurodiverse, and I think that the more that we can be accepting of that, the better we’ll be.”

If you think your child may not be engaging in normal social behavior, Bradshaw suggests bringing up your concerns to a pediatrician.

UofSC has a Social Development and Early Detection research lab where experts work to study and developmentally monitor children with autism. For more information on local resources offered, or to be involved in the lab’s research you can call/text 803-993-8356, or click here.

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