Although childhood autism diagnoses have more than doubled in the last 20 years, the condition can be difficult to detect. It can take years to manifest in such a way that it’s noticeable, and even once it becomes that way, it can still look very different, from children who can’t speak and who stimulate (using repetitive motor movements or speech) to those who might have trouble hearing. decipher social cues. I know this because it wasn’t until my daughter Dahlia was 4 that I came to firmly believe that there was something clinically «wrong» with her. A new test is now being developed that may help doctors detect autism in children earlier than ever. It’s the brainchild of researchers at a start-up called LinusBio, who say the new technology can find risk markers in a hair sample long before symptoms appear.

For children whose needs are much greater, those who are most deeply affected by their autism, interventions can alleviate real suffering. Still, I wonder what would have happened if I had known about Dahlia earlier.

While it is still in the early stages and will need federal approval, as a scientist I am tremendously excited by this news. Any breakthrough in autism science is welcome after decades of stumbling in the dark. Also, as a psychologist, I have always believed that more and better data lead to better treatment approaches and outcomes.

But as a mom, I’m not so sure. Dahlia is now 7 years old. Looking back on her childhood so far, I don’t know if she or I would have been better off knowing about her autism before her. Of course, there may have been interventions that she could have done while her brain was still so plastic in the first three years of her life. Certain game-specific methods, creating new neural pathways, might have improved her ability to relate and connect. some of the most groundbreaking research on autism focuses on the benefits of these very early interventions. And for children whose needs are much greater, those who are most profoundly affected by their autism, interventions can alleviate real suffering. Still, I wonder what would have happened if I had known about Dahlia earlier.

If I had known, would I have found out how much he likes having his arm rubbed when, desperate for him to make eye contact with me, I started massaging him? Now, one of our favorite nightly rituals is the «arm massage» that we do while reading stories in bed. When she was content to play on her own in the dirt at the age of 3, would you instead have insisted that she try to make friends, worried that by leaving her there she was “reinforcing” her autism? Would that have kept him from noticing the beautiful patterns she created, the way she could get lost for hours in her simple symmetries? If I had known, would I have despaired at the way she was squirming in my arms, thus reinforcing for both of us that there was something wrong with her, instead of just seeing it as another Dahlia-ism, a quirk? in my wonderful quirky daughter?

Being a parent these days can sometimes seem like tending a bonsai tree, carefully pruning a root here or cutting a branch there to achieve what appears to be a perfect specimen but is actually something of a drill. I’m afraid that by learning of my daughter’s diagnosis earlier, I might have become one of those bonsai moms. Instead, essentially unaware of Dahlia’s condition, I stepped back and watched, and she taught me that there is much beauty in a garden left to grow without attention.

Andrew Solomon wrote in his brilliant book «Far From the Tree» that “All parenting revolves around one crucial question: to what extent should parents accept their children for who they are and to what extent should they help them become their best selves?” The question for any parent of an autistic child, or really any child born «different», is what is their best self? Is it in trying to mold them to fit a more general norm, or is it in giving up on that dream and instead accepting their differences?

There is another reason why I am concerned about the new test. The traditional means of evaluating autism has always been direct observation of the child. What will we lose by understanding this mysterious condition when the means of diagnosis is reduced to laboratory analysis? What will happen when doctors replace the process of carefully observing a child, as well as asking parents and teachers probing questions, with reading the results of a few tests on a hair follicle? This possibility of a new test is intended to be used as a «diagnostic aid», not as a stand-alone measure of autism, but I still fear that by introducing it into the diagnostic regimen, it will undermine that psychological probing that leads to a more nuanced view. of the children themselves.

When Dahlia was first diagnosed, I thought of her autism as a calamity. Society and the people who treated her only reinforced the idea that she was disabled. The neuropsychologist who told us did so apologetically. Our pediatrician told us not to worry, that «there are many autistic children who grow up to have a happy life.» He worried me that I would have to rush to fix it. How could she exist in her mainstream school and go to the art class and dance program her older sister attended? What about college and getting married? Time was ticking and my job as a parent was to make things right before it was too late.

What I’ve learned, what Dahlia has taught her father and me, is that she doesn’t need fixing. It’s Dahlia who’s fixed us up. At least once a day, she forces me to slow down, stop whatever it is I’m doing, and listen. “Gossamer Dahlia,” my friend called it after an afternoon watching her create a whole world, including furniture made of sticks and plastic forks, for the frog she had caught while the other kids played soccer around her. She loves to build intricate structures out of cardboard and plastic and creates paintings using her entire body. Her dimples deepen when she realizes something, like when she packs and repacks her bags every time we leave the house. Why do we need to strip ourselves of what makes an autistic child different? Perhaps it is not the child but the world around him that needs to change. Perhaps a little unknowing is best for them, as well as for us.