How do doctors diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder?
Learn the various elements of an autism assessment in this guide to diagnosis.
Approximately one in 59 U.S. children have been diagnosed with autism, and the numbers have been climbing for the last several years.
Do you have concerns that your child may be on the autism spectrum? Do you want to have the evaluated so you can get them the extra help they might need? To do this, they’ll need to undergo an autism assessment.
Read on to learn more about what happens during an autism assessment, as well as how you can find the right doctor to handle your child’s diagnosis. (1)
What Is Autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (or ASD for short) is characterized by a variety of challenges. These include challenges with socialization, speech, communication, and repetitive behaviors.
There are many different forms of autism, and these forms are influenced by both genetics and environmental factors. Autism may also be accompanied by other conditions, such as gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disorders, seizure disorders, and mental health conditions (anxiety, depression, attention problems, etc.). (2)
Signs Your Child May Have Autism
Because there are so many different types of autism, it’s not always easy to tell whether or not your child falls on the autism spectrum. The following are some common signs that children with ASD will present:
- Lack of eye contact
- Intense focus on one object
- Trouble understanding social cues (tone, body language, etc.)
- Performing repetitive motions
- Self-abusive behavior (e.g., banging the head against the wall)
- Social withdrawal
- Delays in speech
- Flat or monotone speech
- Sleep problems
The severity with which a child experiences these symptoms can vary quite a bit. In some children, they might be obvious, while they might be barely noticeable in others.
What Happens During an Autism Assessment?
To receive a formal autism diagnosis, a child must undergo an autism assessment performed by a physician, therapist, or behavior analyst. Every screening is a bit different, but they tend to include the following:
Often, professionals who are evaluating a child for autism will start by having a simple discussion with the child’s parents. This helps them to get a better sense of what the parents have noticed and how the child is progressing.
During this discussing, they’ll talk about milestones the child may or may not have reached. This includes things like smiling, mimicking facial expressing, and making attempts at speech.
Depending on the child’s age, they may ask about other behaviors, such as the tone of their speech or their sensitivity to different stimuli, as well.
It’s common for parents to have to fill out a questionnaire (or several questionnaires) during the assessment as well. The questionnaire will include more detailed questions about a child’s behavior and development.
It’s important for parents to answer these questions in the most honest way possible. There aren’t any right or wrong answers. The goal here is simply to evaluate how the child is doing from a developmental standpoint.
It’s common for children to be asked to engage in play-based tests during an assessment, too. There are special instruments that experts will use to evaluate a child’s ability to focus, their language skills, and their behaviors.
Interviews and Observation
The specialist may want to speak to the child as well to see how they communicate and handle talking to strangers. If the child is school-aged, an observational visit can also reveal a lot about their behavior and provide further insight.
Assessments often include some kind of cognitive testing as well. This helps experts to gain a better understanding of how the child thinks, as well as how they handle stressful situations (such as not knowing the answer to a question).
The results of cognitive testing can help parents and specialists identify the child’s strengths and weaknesses, too. This, in turn, can make it easier to create a specialized education program that will help that child perform well in school.
When to Have Your Child Screened for Autism
Children can participate in autism screenings from a very young age. During their regular well-child visits to the doctor, starting at nine months, they ought to have screenings for autism and other developmental delays. They should have additional screenings at 18 and 24 or 30 months.
Depending on the child’s risk (if ASD runs in the family, for example), they may need additional screenings on a more frequent basis.
Choosing the Right Doctor to Diagnose Your Child
It’s not always easy to diagnose a child with autism. Sometimes, physicians can mistake autism for other developmental issues, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (or ADHD).
To ensure an accurate diagnosis, it helps to work with the right kind of professional during the screening process. Meeting with your child’s pediatrician is a good first step. If the pediatrician expresses concern, though, you may want to seek out someone who specializes in ASD to get an official diagnosis.
When choosing a specialist, there are a lot of factors that you ought to consider, including the following:
- How long they’ve worked with kids with ASD
- What kind of specialized training they’ve had to work with kids with ASD
- The specific diagnostic tools and assessments they use
- How closely, if at all, they work with the child’s other doctors/specialists
It’s also a good idea to consider whether or not they offer training for parents and family members. The professionals at this location emphasize the importance of this to ensure that everyone knows the best way to provide your child with the help they need.
Get Your Child Help Today
The idea of taking your child in for an autism assessment might seem scary at first. The sooner you have them evaluated, though, the sooner you can know for certain if they’re on the autism spectrum. This, in turn, will make it easier for you to get them the additional help they need to thrive long-term.
Keep this information in mind and you’ll, hopefully, feel less anxious taking your child in for an assessment. Don’t forget to visit the Health section of our site, either. You’ll find lots of helpful resources there on managing conditions like autism and how to give your child the proper support.
A professional writer with over a decade of incessant writing skills. Her topics of interest and expertise range from health, nutrition and psychology.