In honor of National Autism Awareness month, the Arc’s Vice President of Autism and Clinical Services, Dr. Michael Quinn explains how individuals are screened and diagnosed with autism.

Autism Screening and Diagnosis

Diagnosing autism can be difficult because there are no medical tests, such as a blood test, to make a diagnosis. Clinical professionals study a child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis of autism, which can sometimes be identified at 18 months or younger. Diagnosing autism takes two steps: 1) Developmental Screenings; and 2) Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation.

Developmental Screening

A developmental screening is a short test conducted by a doctor to tell if a child is learning basic skills at the appropriate age, or if the child might have delays in their development. During a developmental screening, the doctor might ask the parents or guardian some questions, or talk and play with the child during the exam to see how he/she learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. A delay in any of these areas could be a sign of a problem. All children should be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during regular well-child doctor visits at:

  • 9 months
  • 18 months
  • 24 or 30 months

Additional screenings might be needed if a child is at high risk for developmental problems due to preterm birth, low birth weight or other reasons. In addition, all children should be screened specifically for autism during regular well-child doctor visits at:

  • 18 months
  • 24 months

Again, additional screenings might be needed if a child is at high risk for autism (e.g., having a sister, brother, or other family member with autism), or if behaviors sometimes associated with autism are present.

It is important for doctors to screen all children for developmental delays, but especially to monitor those who are at a higher risk for developmental problems due to preterm birth, low birth weight, or having a brother or sister with autism. If your child’s doctor does not routinely check your child with this type of developmental screening test, ask that it be done. If the doctor sees any signs of a problem, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is needed.

Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

The second step of diagnosis is a comprehensive evaluation. This thorough review may include looking at a child’s behavior and development, and interviewing the parents. It may also include hearing and vision screenings, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical testing.

In some cases, the primary care doctor might choose to refer the child and family to a specialist for further assessment and diagnosis. Specialists who can do this type of evaluation include:

  • Developmental Pediatricians (doctors who have special training in child development and children with special needs)
  • Child Neurologists (doctors who work on the brain, spine, and nerves)
  • Child Psychologists or Psychiatrists (doctors who know about the human mind)

Once a diagnosis is made, parents or guardians may need various services and supports for their child and their family.  The St. Louis Arc offers a variety of resources and services to assist families as they begin to understand an autism diagnosis.

Michael Quinn, Ph.D.
Vice President
Autism and Clinical Services
St. Louis Arc

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