How is Autism Diagnosed?

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Worried your Child may have a Diagnosis of Autism? What Parents See First! What to Do?

Parents often tell us they sensed something was wrong before their child’s first birthday. Did you? Some say they didn’t know what to ask or were told to “wait and see”. They search online for first signs and wonder, “Johnny can look at me but on his terms; the more I call his name, the more he seems to tune out; he can’t seem to find my voice.” or “Brian won’t take the car from my hand but will spin the wheels for hours”, “Sara just speaks gibberish”, “Sam spins himself round and round rather than play chase.”  Is this Autism?  How is Autism diagnosed?

Parents do not often tell us their child does not smile at them or reach out when they come into the room. They do not tell us they miss cuddling and cooing with their child as they did when he was an infant or now when they try to read a book. They don’t talk very much of their child not following them with their gaze, or pulling them over to point at the cookies, or laughing joyfully when they play hide and seek under the covers. Few say they miss having a relationship and intimacy with their child, though all seem to long for it.  They just want to know if he has a diagnosis of Autism?

The above behaviors relate to the core deficits of Autism, a disorder of relating and communicating. Relationships and communication are the essential emotional developmental capacities that take us through life. Your relationship is most important and you will be able to help your child.

How is Autism diagnosed is a difficult question to answer since there is no standard blood test or even DNA genetic test to determine whether or not someone has Autism, but we do have ways to screen and evaluate your child with you.

How is Autism Diagnosed: Begin with a Developmental Screening

Do you feel your child is connecting to you? Is your child learning things or moving at the rate they should be? Are there delays playing or having friends? Is he sensitive to sounds or touch? A developmental screening test is set out to determine if these and other behaviors are signs of Autism. The doctor will observe how the child relates, speaks, behaves, plays and moves because a delay in any one of these areas could be a sign of Autism. The doctor will likely want to ask questions about how the child behaves at home or if he engages in repetitive behaviors. Most important is to observe how the parents and child interact, communicate and play with each other.

Whether or not your child is suspected to have Autism, it’s generally a good idea to have children screened for developmental delays and disabilities at regular intervals throughout their lives. The recommended intervals are nine months, 18 months, and then again at around 30 months.

The screenings could occur during regular doctor checkups. It’s recommended, during these regular doctor visits, that a child be screened specifically for Autism. Most commonly used is the CHAT 2, but there are other tools as well. You can also sign up for Cognoa’s online screening tool for parents that will help you know what to do next. If your child is at high risk because Autism runs in the family or if the doctor sees any signs of a problem during one of the screenings, get an evaluation.

How is Autism Diagnosed: A Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

The second step in the process of how is Autism diagnosed is the comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. These may be conducted by developmental pediatricians, child neurologists, child psychologists or psychiatrists and a team of other pediatric or Autism specialists. This step again includes interviewing the parents and observing how the child behaves, interacts and relates, using a standardized test such as the ADOS or CARS, but it may also go a step further. The comprehensive diagnostic evaluation may also include additional screening tests for hearing and vision, developmental, OT, PT and Speech and Language evaluations, neuropsychological testing, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical tests.

A comprehensive evaluation will provide a profile of your child’s relative strengths and challenges related to his functional emotional, social and cognitive capacities, as well as help you understand what elements are derailing his development such as motor or language development, sensory processing or sensory integration, auditory processing or visual spatial challenges, etc.

Following the second step the doctor may choose to refer the child and family to an Autism or educational center to plan intervention based on your child’s profile.

Autism Diagnosis Later in Life

How is Autism diagnosed later in life? Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and related Sensory Processing and Sensory Integration Disorders (SPD and SI) can be diagnosed and helped at any age, even in adulthood.  The process is similar to the way a child is diagnosed, however, the adults will be able to provide a lot more introspection as well as life experience that could be useful in determining whether or not the individual has Autism. He may or maybe not.

So, What Does a Worried Parent Do?

Once you are worried it is not time to “wait and see”, but jump in and try to engage your child in things he or she likes to do and join his interests. Every child can be engaged and have a relationship and your relationship with your child is the most important.

If you are worried, have suspicions or do not feel connected to your child, here are some things you can start while waiting for a screening or evaluation but do not wait too long and quickly express your concerns to your doctor. Meanwhile the goal is to woo your child into playful and pleasurable interactions to make it more desirable to be with you than alone. Observe what’s fun and invest time in these activities from splashing games in the tub, knocking down towers, swinging in the park, silly sounds when he touches your nose, crashing cars, and more. The key is to be playful, persistent and make each activity last as long as possible. You will be your child’s “best toy” before long, but remember to speak slowly and simply, use gestures and visuals so your child sees what he hears, and wait, to give him time to respond. When you pursue your child and he begins to respond, you will appreciate your role in helping your child develop.

In Conclusion

Autism can be diagnosed as a child or as an adult, but the earlier the better. If your child is not currently getting screened during regular routine checkups, we recommend you ask your doctor to do so. Otherwise he or she may be able to refer your child to a specialist who can perform such an assessment. For more information on how autism is diagnosed, we invite you to look at the Profectum Parent Toolbox and/or one of our comprehensive training programs.