boy with autism in an developmental specialist's office.

How autism is diagnosed

Evaluation and diagnosis are important steps toward supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

If you suspect your child may have autism or any other condition that could affect their ability to learn and thrive, speak up.

“The most important thing is not to wait if you have a concern. Reach out to your pediatrician or your child’s school. Diagnosis can take a while, but you don’t have to wait for that to get started before trying to provide helpful things for your child,” said Dr. Susan Caldecott-Johnson, a neurodevelopmental pediatrician at OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois and the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria.

Requesting an appointment

child and adult hands with puzzle piecesIn some cases, a teacher, pediatrician or another professional may notice a delay in your child’s development and refer your child for assessment. But if a parent has a concern about their child, there are several ways they can get answers and the help their child needs.

Depending on where you live and what services are available in the area, seeing a developmental pediatrician like Dr. Caldecott-Johnson can take time.

In the time before your appointment, there are ways to get your child started with therapy before a formal diagnosis.

Starting with your child’s pediatrician or primary care doctor is a good first step. They can help identify any other possible causes for a developmental delay, such as impaired hearing.

For children under the age of 3, parents can request an assessment through early intervention. For children three and older, contact your local school system. They may be able to provide an assessment for your child even if they aren’t old enough to attend school.

Getting a diagnosis

When your child is evaluated for autism, they will go through a multifaceted evaluation with a nurse practitioner, physician or psychologist.

Because of the broad range of the autism spectrum, these trained medical professionals use a series of physical and psychological tests to learn more about your child, how they learn and how they interact with others.

  1. Medical evaluation. First comes a medical evaluation. The provider will ask about the child’s medical and family history. Whether a child presents with a language delay, behavioral issue or another problem. Providers are looking for any medical issues that could explain the symptoms. They will also complete a physical exam to look for other findings.
  2. Consideration of other therapies. Your provider may ask about any additional therapies your child has received. Have they received any therapy or educational opportunities to address their issues? Even if these interventions haven’t been successful, they could give your provider insights into what’s causing your child’s difficulties.
  3. Social observation. How your child interacts with others can help indicate whether they may have autism. For younger children, the provider may try to engage them in play to evaluate how they respond. For older children, they will assess how they interact with others and ask about their relationships with other people. Your provider may also notice or ask about repetitive motor movements, such as rocking or flapping their hands.
  4. ADOS test. If your provider suspects autism, they may perform an Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) or a similar test. This standardized test can take about an hour and assist with diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.

Beginning treatment

Hispanic mother with young boy with autism and teenage daughter.Your child may begin receiving some interventional therapies before their formal diagnosis.

“The goal of intervention is to improve a child’s level of function,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said. “The therapies are directed at specific skills. If a child struggles with language, we’re going to work on their speech. If they have trouble processing sensory information, we’re going to address that.”

Autism looks different for every individual, and the support that a person with autism needs can change over time. Your provider can help monitor your child’s progress and make adjustments along the way.

“We’re looking at how much assistance a child needs to complete their daily activities. They may have the same type of therapy as another child, but their sessions are going to look different to suit that child’s needs,” Dr. Caldecott-Johnson said.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Kids & Family