The Process of Diagnosing Autism

If you suspect that your child might have ASD, it’s important to talk to your pediatrician as soon as possible. That’s because early identification and treatment are associated with more positive outcomes for children with ASD. Your pediatrician may recommend an assessment by an expert, but what’s involved in the diagnostic process? 

First, understand that there’s no medical test available to diagnose ASD. Instead of a routine blood test, doctors must analyze the child’s behavior and developmental history in order to make a diagnosis. A referral might be made when a parent, caregiver, or pediatrician notices something that seems “off”, like a lack of eye contact, little interest in others, and getting upset over minor changes to the daily routine. These observations are often the result of a developmental screening, in which those caring for a child pay close attention to developmental milestones and whether the child is achieving them. Referral for further evaluation may also be based on the results of a routine ASD screening.

If your child has certain risk factors, like preterm birth, low birthweight, or an existing health problem, your pediatrician might be especially proactive about screenings. Even without risk factors, however, it’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for all children to undergo developmental and behavioral screenings during their 9 month, 18 month, and 30 month well-child checkups. Screenings that are specifically meant to diagnose ASD should be performed at 18 months and 24 months. If the child is at high risk, more screenings may be encouraged. 

Why is this early screening so important? It’s because children with ASD often display behavioral issues and these challenges often persist through adolescence and adulthood without intervention. They may present with co-occurring conditions like attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or anxiety. They often have trouble with friendships, social communication, and understanding expectations at home and at school. Through early diagnosis, many issues can be reduced or avoided. 

Of course, a routine screening is not going to paint a complete picture of your child, nor will it provide a diagnosis. It will, however, help your pediatrician to determine whether your child is on the right developmental track. If not, you’ll likely be referred to a specialist so that your child can undergo further developmental evaluation. During a developmental evaluation, your child will be examined by a specialist like a developmental pediatrician or child psychologist and may involve additional professionals such as a speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, or another specialist. By observing the child, giving the child structured tests, and gathering information from those closest to the child, the specialist will be able to determine if your child needs further testing, evidence-based treatments, or early intervention services.

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