Autism Diagnosis & Screening
There are currently no medical exams to specifically diagnose Autism. Doctors and healthcare professionals rely on observation, as well as speaking with parents, physicians and therapists about the child in question, to make a diagnosis.
Doctors focus on two core areas of development and behavior that tend to serve as hallmarks of the Autism spectrum.
The first is social interaction and communication – the ability of a child to interact with both peers and parents, and verbal interactions – children may have trouble vocalizing needs and conversing. The second is repetitive behaviors and a narrow field of interests that may be exclusive of others.
What often gets left out or under-appreciated is the sensory differences or sensitivities (to sounds, lights, tactile sensations, etc.) that a child may have. For instance, many children on the spectrum put their hands over their ears. This is often either ignored or viewed as simply a repetitive behavior by doctors, when it is almost always the child’s attempt to shield themselves from auditory sensory overload.
Since Autism is so wide ranging, it is not common for one doctor alone to make a diagnosis. Oftentimes, professionals have to work together and compare observations and notes.
Autism Screening & Testing
As vocal communication may be a challenge, hearing tests are generally one of the first tests to be completed. Once hearing tests are completed, a complete neurological exam is given, along with cognitive and language testing.
Neurologists, speech therapists and psychiatrists are often brought on board. Nearly all medical professionals agree that an early diagnosis is very helpful in addressing Autism. (The Son-Rise Program helps children and adults of all ages and is not merely an early-intervention approach, due to the belief – and directly experience – of the brain being plastic throughout the lifespan and of people on the spectrum being capable of immense growth at all ages.)
The Autism Society urges parents to use a four-pronged approach when going through the diagnosis process.
- Stay informed: Learn as much as you can about your child’s disorder and when talking to healthcare professionals, ask questions and if something isn’t clear, ask for clarifications.
- Be prepared: Be prepared for meetings with doctors, therapists and school personnel. Write questions and concerns and note answers.
- Be organized: Many parents find it useful to keep a notebook their child’s diagnosis and treatment as well as meetings with professionals.
- Communicate: It’s important to ensure open communication. If you don’t agree with a professional’s recommendation, for example, say specifically why you don’t.
A 2006 study published by the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that there was a 13-month delay between parents seeking diagnosis and the Autism diagnosis being made, with the authors claiming that the delay was a result of the varying degrees of Autism and of children first being diagnosed with other issues. A 2015 study by Dr. Amir Miodovnik, found that it took an average of three years longer to diagnose autism in children initially thought to have just ADHD. These studies highlight the difficulties that can arise in getting a firm diagnosis of Autism.
It is important to remember that you do not need a diagnosis to begin helping your child. Whatever the final diagnosis ends up being, you as a parent know your child has challenges, and you want to help them. You do not need to wait for a diagnosis in order to start looking at ways to encourage your child to grow.
It is also important for parents to realize that, since Autism is still being studied and understood, diagnosis and treatment information can vary widely between professionals. You don’t have to take one person’s advice as the sole source of information. Instead, you can do your homework and find the path that best suits you and your child.