During my early days as a mom, I took great pride in tracking my baby son’s development as many first-time parents do. I scoured the pages of parenting books to make sure his development was moving right along. At every well-baby visit, I’d arrive at our pediatrician’s office armed with a list of all the amazing things he was doing, ready to discuss his progress. However, at that time, busy practices with full waiting rooms and insurance billing pressures typically kept doctors focused mostly on checking for the most tangible aspects of healthy development (like height, weight, reflexes, motor skills and vaccination schedules) while the softer side of development (speech and language, social skills, sensory processing skills and emotional regulation) were not followed as closely.

Somewhere between age 15 months and my son’s second birthday, these areas were not progressing as they should. Words were not coming; pretend play was not happening; eye contact was fleeting. Because I had been tracking his development, I soon became aware of these delays and expressed my concerns to our pediatrician. Despite his reassurances to “wait and see,” my instincts told me something was wrong and to keep searching for answers. Eventually we received the life-changing news: Our beautiful boy had autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

No question a long road lay ahead of us. But on the flip side of that coin, we caught the disorder well before his third birthday, early enough to receive early intervention (EI) services. With the help of skilled EI therapists, we got busy right away. They gave us solutions and that gave us hope. Most importantly, early identification increased our son’s potential for a successful life. In the end, tracking my son’s developmental milestones made us aware and proactive – and that made all the difference.

That was back in 1995, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was a time when autism was believed to occur in one in every 250 children. Today, that estimate has skyrocketed to one in every 68 children. In response to this crisis, federal legislation since 2006 has paid for and promoted improvements in screening and intervention practices through public health research and awareness, training of professionals and parents, and more. Thus, the picture for our children’s futures is much more hopeful today.

Tracking and celebrating your child’s developmental milestones is the key to success. Doing so will improve the long-term developmental outcomes for all children (with and without ASD).

The Good News

There is much parents can do to learn how to track milestones, to promote healthy development in their children and to get help if there’s a concern. How? By using the many free resources compiled by child development experts for the following federal collaborative efforts:

The U.S. Administration of Children & Families’ Birth to 5: Watch Me Thrive! program is a coordinated federal effort to support families and care providers by:

• Celebrating developmental milestones. Every family looks forward to seeing a child’s first smile, first step and first words!

• Promoting universal screenings. Just like hearing and vision screenings assure children can hear and see clearly, developmental and behavioral screenings track a child’s progress in areas like language and social and motor development. These help identify possible delays. With early and regular screenings, parents can make sure their children get the support they need to succeed in school and thrive alongside their peers. Families can download a Developmental Screening Passport to track their child’s screening history and results. Then they can share this information with their child’s doctor and other providers at screening.

• Enhancing developmental supports by combining the love and knowledge families have of their children with tools, guidance and tips recommended by experts.

Read more on the next page!

The companion program by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Learn the Signs. Act Early., tracks a young child’s developmental milestones so parents can know a lot more about how their child is learning and growing. The program offers free milestone checklists and other resources to help parents track their child’s development and take action if they have a concern. Parents can:

• See milestones that children should reach from 2 months to 5 years of age.

• Use interactive tools to keep track of the milestones.

• Learn about the importance of screenings and what to do if there’s a concern about a child’s development.

Learn about positive parenting and view simple learning activities and concepts to incorporate into a child’s routines.

Lastly, the Massachusetts Act Early campaign is a collaboration of state agencies, health care providers, educators, family support services and others working to strengthen state early identification and intervention services for children at risk of developmental delays and disorders.  On the website, families can find versions of the free CDC materials with Massachusetts contact information, as well as a list of local diagnostic service providers.

By taking advantage of federal resources and by tracking milestones, you can improve a child’s outcome and stay ahead of concerns.

Take it from me, acting early works!

Elaine Gabovitch is an instructor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at University of Massachusetts Medical School and family faculty at the UMass Medical School Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center in Charlestown. She is the mother of a young adult with ASD and was appointed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to serve as the ambassador to Massachusetts for the “Learn the Signs. Act Early.” program. In addition, she is the state team leader of the Massachusetts Act Early state autism coalition.

Related Websites

• Birth to Five: Watch Me Thrive!; acf.hhs.gov/programs/ecd/watch-me-thrive/families

• Learn the Signs. Act Early;  cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/index.html

• Massachusetts Act Early; maactearly.org/im-a-parent.html

• Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care; mass.gov/edu/government/departments-and-boards/department-of-early-education-and-care