Shaping the Future: Grandparents Have a Key Role to Play in Diagnosing Autism

By Alison Singer, President, Autism Science Foundation

“It takes a village to raise a child” – just hearing this phrase might evoke images of a bygone era. While today’s children are of course still shaped by their communities, attitudes around parenting have become fiercely individualistic. The internet is rife with advice columns featuring worried grandparents who are concerned about their grandchild’s upbringing, and the advice is almost always the same: butt out.

There’s a grain of truth in all this, of course – no one likes a busybody, much less when that person is your own flesh and blood. But there are times when a more experienced perspective is not only acceptable, but crucial to a child’s long-term development. 

As President of the Autism Science Foundation, I’m here to say that grandparents have a vital role to play in diagnosing and treating autism. As Grandparents Day approaches, this is the perfect time to explain how continued vigilance will lead to improved outcomes for the next generation and encourage grandparents to speak out.

There are still so many mysteries surrounding autism, but one thing we do know is that early intervention is critical to getting children the support they need. Numerous studies show that addressing deficits early in life is key to maximizing developmental gains.

This can’t happen without early detection, and that’s where grandparents have a crucial role to play. Grandparents bring a unique perspective to the parenting experience because they have done it all before – and in many cases, they’ve done it multiple times. Often, they are more attuned to childhood development milestones than new parents and can draw upon their years of experience to identify traits or quirks that may be worth discussing with a professional.

The data support this idea. In a study of over 2,600 grandparents of children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by the Interactive Autism Network, 30% of grandparents said they were the first to notice signs of an ASD, while an additional 49% supported others who noticed a problem. And a study from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York called “Grandma Knows Best: Family Structure and Age of Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder” indicates that maternal grandmothers and teachers are often the first people to have concerns.  

As the mother of a daughter with an ASD, I have a firsthand experience with a teacher being the first person to bring symptoms to my attention. In my case, early signs were first spotted by my daughter’s preschool teacher. When she brought her concerns to my attention I did not respond well. I started yelling at her and used words that don’t belong in any preschool. But years later, after my daughter was thriving in a special education preschool, I went back to her, bagels in hand, and thanked her. Your child, especially a daughter-in-law, may not react well at first if you express concerns, but I promise you, down the road they will be very grateful.  

My message to grandparents is one I will borrow from the Department of Homeland Security: if you see something, say something. Your years of parenting experience and outside perspective are invaluable tools for parents of young children. The world may be changing, but this is one arena in which you can always make a difference in the lives of your loved ones.