child play with toy on floor

Autism Diagnosis Guide

If you found my autism diagnosis guide, then you probably have plenty of questions regarding your child’s development and autism. I know I sure did! You were likely told, “Not to worry; every kid is different,” or your pediatrician might have said, “I never saw any developmental delays.” That happened to us, but I knew something was just off deep down.

The baby I held, who used to be very engaged and make great eye contact, no longer cared if I was in the room. She babbled “Dada” a couple of times when she was younger, but Elizabeth interacted with us less and less each day. By about 18 months old, I thought she couldn’t hear me. After four hearing tests by three different audiologists, they all confirmed she could hear! Based on everything I had read, I knew it was time to start exploring testing options for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

What is Autism?

First, you need to understand what ASD is. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is a complex developmental disability characterized by differences in social communication and interaction and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

Therefore, autistic individuals struggle to understand and express emotions, maintain eye contact, engage in reciprocal conversations, and grasp social nuances. Autism’s spectrum nature means that it varies widely in its presentation, ranging from mild challenges that go unnoticed to more profound difficulties that impact daily functioning. 

What Should I Do If I Suspect Autism?

After many discussions with our pediatrician, I knew I had to do something about her developmental delays. Even though our pediatrician didn’t seem to think there was any cause for concern, I still did my own research.

There are parent assessments available online for evaluating your child. These questionairres are very helpful for parents to use to decide whether to pursue a diagnosis. They’re not a substitute for a diagnostic assessment by a healthcare professional, but they will give you some information to get started.

Elizabeth, at the age of autism diagnosis

Who is Qualified to Diagnose Autism?

While this journey is overwhelming, this post will help navigate setting up appointments with various doctors who can diagnose autism in children. Receiving a proper diagnosis of autism in children is a crucial step toward understanding and supporting their unique needs.

For example, several specialists are authorized to diagnose a child with autism. I recommend you talk with your child’s pediatrician about which specialist is most appropriate for your child. Most importantly, keep in mind that the usual age for an autism diagnosis is two years old. Most healthcare professionals do not diagnose a child with autism until they are two years old or older because they believe the results will be more accurate.

However, if you suspect your child has autism before their second birthday, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician so you have a specialist lined up when your child turns two years old. Most specialists have long waitlists. Appointments typically last 2 hours or more, and there needs to be more doctors to keep up with the demand. As a result, it is not uncommon for waitlists to be six months or longer!

Specialists Who Diagnose Autism for Children

  1. Developmental Pediatrician:  Developmental pediatricians have extensive experience assessing developmental disorders, including autism. Be prepared to provide detailed information about your child’s behavior, milestones, and family history. The developmental pediatrician conducts a comprehensive evaluation, possibly including standardized assessments and observations.
  2. Child Psychiatrist: A child psychiatrist assesses your child’s cognitive and behavioral development. They often use standardized tests, questionnaires, and clinical interviews to gather information. These professionals focus on understanding your child’s emotional and psychological well-being, which is crucial for an accurate diagnosis of autism.
  3. Neuropsychologist:  Neuropsychologists specialize in understanding the relationship between brain function and behavior. They conduct in-depth cognitive assessments to evaluate various cognitive domains such as memory, attention, problem-solving, and executive functions. This assessment provides a comprehensive picture of your child’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, aiding in autism diagnosis.
  4. Neurologist: While not all neurologists specialize in autism, they can help rule out other neurological conditions with similar symptoms. A neurologist’s assessment can contribute to a more accurate diagnosis by eliminating other potential causes.

Less Common Ways To Diagnose Autism

  1. Speech-Language Pathologist:  Communication difficulties are often associated with autism. To evaluate your child’s language and communication skills, a speech-language pathologist (SLP) can be consulted. The SLP assesses your child’s ability to use language for communication, comprehend social cues, and express their needs. Working alongside an SLP can offer valuable insights into your child’s communication challenges. Note: It is less common to receive an official diagnosis from a speech-language pathologist. 
  2. Occupational Therapist: Sensory and Motor Skills Assessment Sensory sensitivities and motor coordination issues are common in children with autism. An occupational therapist (OT) can evaluate your child’s sensory processing and motor skills. They’ll look at how your child responds to different sensory stimuli and their ability to perform daily tasks. This assessment can comprehensively assess your child’s sensory experiences and challenges. Note: It is less common to receive an official diagnosis from an occupational therapist. 

Diagnostic Criteria For Autism Spectrum Disorder

Physicians utilize specific assessment tools outlined in the DSM-5 to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These tools include the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R). The ADOS involves direct observation of social and communicative behaviors, while the ADI-R is a structured interview with caregivers to gather information about the individual’s developmental history. These tools provide standardized criteria for evaluating social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive behaviors, aiding in accurate ASD diagnosis.

Does My Child Need A Specialist After The Diagnosis?

Finally, once you have received your diagnosis from your specialist, you likely will not need to see them more than once a year except to check in on how your child is developing. Most of your child’s medical needs are still met by their regular pediatrician.

As your child ages, you may need to see their specialist more often for various recommendations regarding speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, and possibly physical therapy.

Next Steps

To summarize, you have a long journey ahead, but receiving your diagnosis for your child helps to set your child up for long-term success. Your diagnosis will allow you to start medical services and receive early intervention services through your local school district and government.

Be sure to follow my blog for more information about our Neurodiversity Journey.

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