Grandparents Spot Signs of Autism Before Parents Do, Study Finds

grandma and granddaughter
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As parents, we like to think we know our kids better than anyone else does. After all, who could possibly guess that they like apples but not pears, or that they can only fall asleep if they have exactly three sips of water, two trips to the bathroom, four hugs, and two rounds of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"? We might be experts on our kids, but even the experts miss things from time to time. That's why every mom and dad should take note of a compelling new study that shows it's grandparents -- not parents -- who play the biggest role in recognizing early signs of autism.

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A team of researchers from Columbia Business School, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at Mt. Sinai surveyed 477 parents of children with autism, as well as 196 extended family members recommended by the parents. They ultimately discovered that kids on the spectrum who frequently interact with their grandparents tend to be diagnosed with autism a lot sooner -- sometimes up to five times sooner.

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The study, which was published this week in the journal Autism, showed that frequent interaction with grandmothers could lower the age of a child's diagnosis by an average of five months. Similarly, interaction with grandfathers can reduce the age of diagnosis by almost four months. Currently, most kids are diagnosed around age 4 but signs can appear as early as 12–18 months. 

The survey also included friends, siblings, and teachers. Overall, about 50 percent of those surveyed said they suspected a child had autism before the child's parents noticed signs of the disorder.

Interestingly, only about half of the people who noted autism spectrum behaviors in a child they knew actually felt comfortable talking to that child's parents about it.

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As most parents know, early diagnosis is the key to making sure kids on the autism spectrum get the best possible treatment. So, why does it seem like so many parents are the last ones to realize their child might need to be evaluated?

Nachum Sicherman, a lead study author and the Carson Family Professor of Business at Columbia Business School, tells Carnegie Mellon University News he thinks it has a lot to do with avoidance.

"Many parents avoid seeking help to find a diagnosis for their child, even though they sense something might be wrong," he explained. "They often ignore signs of a larger problem and look the other way, making the role of close family members and friends vital to accelerating diagnosis and helping a child's condition."

It's not always easy to admit that your child might be going through something they can't simply "grow out of" or that they could need more help than you can offer on your own. Parents like to believe that we can solve everything. And, if there's one thing pretty much every parent hates, it's listening to unsolicited advice and opinions from people we assume could never know our kids as well as we do.

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This study is important, though, because it reminds parents that we should do a better job of listening to the people around us. It might seem annoying and even judgmental when Grandma keeps commenting on a toddler's behavior, but it's possible she's seeing something that we're missing. And, we have to remember that grandparents and other family members love our kids and want the best for them too.

As the authors of this study note, diagnosing autism as early as possible can have major effects on a child's behavior and improve his or her overall treatment, social behavior, and IQ. It's worth it to be open to hearing the concerns of those closest to us and try to do what's best for our children.

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