How autism is diagnosed is a multi-phase process. Children with autism may be diagnosed as early as 6 months while others may not be diagnosed till after age three.
No matter when or how autism is diagnosed one thing is clear: An easy diagnosis gets children the extra help they need to meet development milestones and future successes.
Navigating the process for an autism diagnosis is confusing and overwhelming for parents.
We want to help calm your nerves and walk you through the process of how autism is diagnosed.
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It’s recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that ALL CHILDREN be screened for autism.
While early diagnosis is always the key, autism is a spectrum disorder. What does that mean?
It means that each child with autism is different as to…
- What age they are diagnosed
- What severity of autism there is
- How much therapy is needed
How Autism Is Diagnosed
Phase 1: Seeing The Signs
The very first phase of diagnosing autism is knowing and recognizing the signs.
Sometimes the signs of autism are noticeable, while others are considered “high functioning” and therefore display subtle signs of autism.
Either way, it’s important to know the signs if you are worried your child is experiencing developmental delays or you just have the parenting gut feeling that something is wrong, then compare your child’s behavior to the signs and symptoms of autism below.
Signs Of Autism
Babies 0-12 months
- Little to no eye contact
- Little or no smiling
- Little to no back-and-forth communication exchanges (sharing smiles, sounds, expressions)
- Limited vocalization or babbling
- Little to no back-and-forth gestures (waving, pointing, or reaching for items)
- Rarely or never responds to his or her name
Children 12 months and older
- Few or no words
- Not speaking two-word phrases (not including echoing speech)
- Loss of speech or social skills previously acquired
- Prefers to play or be alone
- Repeating words or phrases (also known as echolalia)
- Repetitive stimming behaviors (hand flapping, rocking back-and-forth, spinning)
- Doesn’t transition well between activities and/or social settings
- Prefers a strict schedule with no change
- Over or under-reacting to pain, bright lights, sounds, etc. (a sign of sensory processing disorder)
- Trouble understand other’s feelings
- Restricted interests or highly fixated with certain objects
Phase 2: Well-Child Screenings
Regular doctor checkups are vital for the developmental success of children.
Well-child screenings are questions that parents and doctors review together to look for any signs that a child is experiencing developmental delays.
Well-child checks occur at 9, 18, 24, or 30 months. But a specific screening for autism occurs at 18 months and 24 months of age.
During this phase of how autism is diagnosed your child’s pediatrician will examine your child’s behavior in person.
However, the most important information for your child’s pediatrician is the information you give the doctor through your observations and worries.
Parents know their child’s behavior better than anyone!
Your child’s pediatrician depends on the answers you provide to better understand your child’s behavior and development.
From your answers and the pediatrician’s observations, your child’s behavior will be compared to ASD screening tools.
If your child’s pediatrician feels your child is showing developmental delays, your child will then be recommended for further screenings.
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Phase 3: Specialist Evaluations
After the initial screening stage with your child’s pediatrician, the third stage will become more complex for diagnosing autism because it requires many doctors appointments with specialists.
For further screening for autism, your child may see the following health professionals:
- Speech-Language Pathologist- Helps identify any communication delays and issues with language skills.
- Developmental Pediatrician- Helps evaluate age-appropriate developments and milestones related to eating, dressing, toileting, etc.
- Neuropsychologist- Helps to identify medical, neurological, and neurodevelopmental delays.
Many of these doctor appointments overlap with one another and could be separated by months at a time depending on when your child can get into to see a specialist.
Phase 4: Hearing Test
A hearing test is an important step for how autism is diagnosed.
If your child has hearing issues it can cause a lack of eye contact, not responding to one’s name, and not being able to effectively engage in back-and-forth communication.
All of which are signs for diagnosing autism.
If a hearing issue is found in your child, it is possible your child may not have autism and may need hearing assistive devices instead to notice a positive change in your child’s behavior and communication.
Phase 5: A Diagnosis
A diagnosis of autism is upsetting for some parents. Please, don’t feel bad if you are upset by the diagnosis.
It is difficult to receive and official have it confirmed by multiple doctors.
Since autism is a spectrum disorder, your child will most likely receive a diagnosis along with a severity level.
There are three severity levels within autism spectrum disorder, each severity level (1, 2, or 3) corresponds to social communication and restricted/repetitive behaviors.
Severity Level 1: This level “requires support” due to noticeable impairments in communication, plus inflexibility in daily functional activities. Level 1 is also known as “high functioning autism.”
Severity Level 2: Level two is more severe than level one and “requires substantial support” due to defects in both verbal and nonverbal social communication skills. This level also has an increased deficiency in adjusting to environmental change that causes distress that others can see as well.
Severity Level 3: Level three is considered most severe “requiring very substantial support.” This high level of severity requires the most care from parents, an increased support system, and also increased therapies/interventions compared to levels 1 and 2. This level is marked by severe difficulties with transitional change and severe problems with verbal and nonverbal communication.
No matter where your child falls on the severity level, he or she will need therapy services like speech therapy and occupational therapy, and other intervention services to catch up developmentally and increase communication and social skills.
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Final Thoughts About How Autism Is Diagnosed
An official autism diagnosis does not happen overnight.
Depending on where you live and the number of doctors you are referred to see, it can take up to a year to finally receive a diagnosis.
I have met other parents who have told me stories of being on waitlists for receiving a diagnosis.
For my son, the process took us a total of three months to receive a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder level 3.
Whatever step you’re at for getting your child diagnosed with autism, know that you are doing the right thing for your child.
But you need to be aware that many times children receive a diagnosis of autism as well as a co-occurring disorder like ADHD or Sensory Processing Disorder.
It’s overwhelming to go through the process of how autism is diagnosed. It’s even more of a shock when your child receives a diagnosis.
Not because you didn’t see it coming, but because you now know the long struggle ahead in getting your child the help he/she needs.
An unspoken phase that exists for parents in getting their child diagnosed is grief. It’s ok to have a grieving process after receiving a diagnosis.
You’re upset and scared about what the future holds for your child.
However, after the grieving process is done, things do get better.
Your child will start intervention services like speech and OT and soon enough you will see your child begin to flourish!
How autism is diagnosed is only a small step in your child’s life in learning to manage autism spectrum disorder.