Developmental Delay vs Autism: Understanding the Differences

If you are a parent or caregiver of a child who is experiencing developmental delays, it can be difficult to understand the difference between global developmental delay vs autism. Although both conditions can affect a child's development, they are not the same thing. Understanding the differences between the two can help you identify the best course of action for your child's care.

Developmental Delay vs Autism: Understanding the Differences

Developmental delay is a term used to describe when a child does not meet their developmental milestones at the expected time. These milestones include physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Autism, on the other hand, is a neurological disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate and interact with others. While some children with autism may experience developmental delays, not all children with developmental delays have autism.

As a pediatric occupational therapist, I treat the delays I see in my evaluations. The specific diagnosis do not usually matter in my treatment approach. However, many insurance companies base a therapy reimbursement on the diagnosis of autism. Allowing more therapy if I child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder ASD versus global developmental delay. It is my professional opinion that both diagnoses require professional evaluation, treatment, and parent education for the children to live their most productive, successful lives possible. Early intervention is key

Understanding Developmental Delay

Developmental delay refers to the situation where a child fails to achieve specific developmental milestones within the anticipated timeframe. These milestones encompass various aspects of growth, encompassing physical, cognitive, social, and emotional domains. Challenges associated with developmental delay may manifest in areas such as mobility, communication, or interpersonal interactions. Multiple factors, such as genetics, environmental influences, or medical conditions, can contribute to the occurrence of developmental delay.

If you are concerned that your child is not meeting developmental milestones, it is important to speak with your pediatrician or another health professional. Developmental delays can occur in early childhood and may affect fine motor skills, speech, cognitive abilities, and social and emotional skills.


Symptoms of developmental delays can vary depending on the child and the specific area of development affected. Some common signs of developmental delay include:

  • Delayed physical milestone achievements such as crawling or walking
  • Delayed speech or language skills
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as picking up small objects or coloring
  • Trouble with cognitive skills, such as direction following
  • Difficulty with social and emotional skills, such as making friends or understanding emotions
OT treating a child with developmental delay


If you are concerned that your child may have developmental delays, it is important to seek an evaluation from a qualified health professional. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children receive developmental screenings at 9, 18, and 30 months of age. If a screening indicates that a child may have delays, further evaluation may be necessary.

During an evaluation, a health professional will assess a child's developmental milestones and may conduct tests to evaluate specific areas of development. The evaluation may include input from parents, caregivers, and teachers.

It is important to note that developmental delays are not the same as developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder. However, some children with developmental delays may later be diagnosed with a developmental disability. Early identification and intervention can be key in helping children with developmental delays reach their full potential.

Every state provides early intervention services. YOu can learn more about these services in my article Everything You Need to Know about Early Intervention Services and What is an IFSP? The Individual Family Service Plan Explained

Understanding Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how you interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. ASD is a spectrum disorder, which means that it affects individuals differently and to varying degrees.

Children with autism may have difficulty with social skills, such as making eye contact or understanding social cues. They may also have repetitive behaviors or restricted interests. Autism is a lifelong condition that affects each person differently.


One of the primary symptoms of autism is difficulty with social interaction. You may have trouble making eye contact, responding to your name, or engaging in conversations with others. You may also have difficulty understanding nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions or body language.

Another symptom of autism is repetitive behaviors. You may engage in repetitive movements, such as rocking back and forth or flapping your hands. You may also have a strong attachment to routines and become upset if they are disrupted.

Difficulty with sensory processing is also a sign of ASD however having sensory processing disorder does not mean a child has autism.

Child receiving occupational therapy


Autism is typically diagnosed in early childhood, as symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life. Some early signs of autism include:

  • Not responding to their own name
  • Not making eye contact
  • Not talking as much as other children their age
  • Not smiling back at you when you smile at them

It is important to note that not all children with developmental delays have autism. Developmental delays can be caused by a variety of factors, such as speech delays or learning disabilities.


Diagnosis of autism is typically done by a healthcare professional who specializes in autism, such as a developmental pediatrician or a child psychologist. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) is used to diagnose autism.

There are several different types of autism, including Autistic Disorder, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, and Rett Syndrome. Each type has its own set of symptoms and diagnostic criteria.

Understanding the symptoms and signs of autism is important for early diagnosis and intervention. If you suspect that you or your child may have autism, it is important to seek a professional diagnosis from a healthcare provider who specializes in autism.

Comparing Developmental Delay vs Autism: The Differences

While both developmental delay and autism share some similarities, they are two distinct conditions. Here are some key differences between developmental delay and autism:

Differences between Developmental Delay vs Autism

While both developmental delay and autism can affect a child's development, there are some key differences between the two conditions.

In my personal professional experience, the difference in the children I have treated with developmental delay versus autism is as follows. Children with developmental delays usually have approximately equal delays in all developmental areas. Or a significant speech delay or physical delay only without a delay in their ability to connect with adults and other children.

However, children with autism show a significant delay in their ability to interact with others on a social or emotional level. This can be seen with their decreased eye contact, social interaction and play skill development. These children may have other developmental delays (most noticeable in motor planning and low muscle tone) however their lack of connection to others is significantly noticeable.

It is important to note that developmental delay and autism can co-occur, and some children may have both conditions. I

Diagnosis Process

If you suspect your child may have a developmental delay or autism, it is important to seek a professional evaluation from a health professional. The diagnosis process for developmental delays and autism can be similar, but there are some differences.


The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children be screened for developmental delays and autism at their regular check-ups at 9 months, 18 months, and 24 or 30 months. This screening can help identify children who may need further evaluation.

Evaluation of child development is complicated and goes way beyond a checklist. This is why I recommend those who are concerned regarding their child's development seek out specialists for further evaluation.


The diagnosis of developmental delay or autism is made based on the evaluation results. If your child is diagnosed with autism, the health professional will determine the severity of the condition based on the level of support your child needs in daily life. This severity level can help guide treatment and support options.

It is important to remember that the diagnosis of developmental delay or autism is not a label or a definition of your child. It is a tool to help identify areas where your child may need extra support and resources. With early intervention and support, children with developmental delays and autism can reach their full potential.

Treatment and Support

If your child has been diagnosed with developmental delay or autism, there are a variety of treatment and support options available to help them reach their full potential. Early intervention is key, and it is important to work with a team of professionals to create a treatment plan that is tailored to your child's specific needs.

Occupational therapy and speech therapy are two common treatments for children with developmental delay or autism. Occupational therapy can help improve fine motor skills, while speech therapy can help with communication and social skills. These therapies can be done in a one-on-one setting or in a group setting with other children.

Problem-solving and routines can also be helpful for children with developmental delay or autism. Creating a consistent routine can help reduce anxiety and improve behavior. Problem-solving skills can be taught through play and other activities, and can help children learn how to approach challenges in a positive way.

For children with intellectual disabilities, special education programs can provide additional support and resources. These programs are designed to help children with developmental delays or autism reach their full potential and achieve their goals.

Does your child have a hard time staying calm?

Is it a meltdown or a tantrum?

Learn the differences so you can respond with confidence!

Meltdown or tantrum download

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children with developmental delay or autism receive early intervention services as soon as possible. This can include a variety of therapies and support services, as well as problem-solving and goal-setting strategies.

Overall, the most important thing you can do for your child is to work closely with a team of professionals to create a treatment plan that is tailored to their specific needs. With the right support and resources, children with developmental delay or autism can thrive and reach their full potential.

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