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Recognizing Regressions in Children with Autism

by Jaime Friedman

January 05, 2023


Autism Spectrum Disorder affects different people in different ways. This includes the rate of achievement for developmental milestones and the likelihood of an individual with Autism experiencing some form of regression. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as “a complex disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others.” With Autism, each case presents a unique combination of skills and deficits. People who have been diagnosed with Autism may have trouble with learning, communication, social skills, motor skills and/or sensory sensitivity. These skills, as well as developmental milestones can help health providers make a diagnosis. Skills acquisition and regressions are also important for tracking the progress of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services.

For help with getting a diagnosis or finding other Autism services, the Aspire website has a guide to help parents navigate the different services we offer, from diagnosis and referrals to evaluations and treatment. If your child already has a diagnosis but is showing signs of regression, some of the information below may be helpful, but each case is different. The best course of action is usually to observe developmental milestones and skill deficits, while keeping your provider in the loop as best you can. This will help behavioral health providers individualize your child’s treatment to fit their needs.

Identifying Regressions

Many children diagnosed with Autism experience some type of skill regression, and regressions usually occur earlier in developmental stages. They are generally noticed while the child is between 15 and 30 months old. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), a regression in Autism occurs when a child stops using language, play or social skills that they have already learned. Children with regressions in Autism may lose abilities related to speech or social skills. Since regressions often happen early on in development, the absence of the skill may be subtle. For example, a child could stop making steady eye contact, or they may develop a new social aversion to unfamiliar people. Without extended check-ins or opportunities to practice social skills alongside a parent or professional, a regression may go unnoticed.

Possible Causes of Regression in Autism

Researchers are still working to understand why some children with Autism experience regressions while others do not. One of the leading theories now is that regressions are determined by genetics, but some argue that being “out of practice” causes some children to regress. Every year, children in schools must make at least one transition from “vacation-mode” to “school mode.” Depending on how each individual spends their summer, they may be able to pick up where they left off last year, but many children have trouble getting back into the right mindset after months of time off.

Besides the changes that occur each school year, we are still approximately three years removed from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced sweeping changes across the globe. The pandemic necessitated the shutdown of countless businesses, and most businesses had to adjust. Even if your child could still receive services during the shutdown, they probably have had to adopt routines that constituted a significant change, such as, virtual sessions. In these cases, it became more difficult to assess their skills.

Tips for Parents

The diverse presentations of Autism Spectrum Disorder make diagnosing and treating it complicated. Parents can still help their child’s behavioral health provider by supplying observations and noting any changes in their child’s behavior. Since you cannot anticipate a regression, the next  best option is monitoring your child’s growth and achievement of developmental milestones. This will help the provider fill in the gaps between in-person services and help them apply the most appropriate intervention based on the strengths/needs.

Aspire Child & Family Services specializes in the treatment of children with Autism and related developmental disabilities by providing high quality IBHS-ABA. Contact our office to learn more: