There is no medical test for diagnosing autism. A diagnosis is based on observed behavior and educational and psychological testing. As the symptoms of autism vary, so do the routes to obtaining a diagnosis.
Some children are identified as having developmental delays before obtaining a diagnosis of autism and may already receive some services or therapy. Because many of the behaviors associated with autism are shared by other disorders, various medical tests may be ordered to rule out or identify other possible causes of the symptoms being exhibited.
At first glance, some persons with autism may appear to have intellectual disability, a behavior disorder, problems with hearing, or even odd and eccentric behavior. To complicate matters further, these conditions can co-occur with autism.
However, it is important to distinguish autism from other conditions, since an accurate diagnosis and early identification can provide the basis for building an appropriate and effective educational and treatment program.
Signs to look for in children with autism include:
- Lack of or delay in spoken language
- Repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects)
- Little or no eye contact
- Lack of interest in peer relationships
- Lack of spontaneous or make-believe play
- Persistent fixation on parts of objects
Because the cause of autism is unknown, autism diagnoses are based purely on observations or reports of behaviors. Unlike many medical syndromes, autism is not a disease. It is not contagious and are not yet treatable through medication (though medicine can help some symptoms).
ASDs are developmental disorders that reflect differences in the way children develop from very early on and that continue to affect developmental into adulthood.
Whether you or your child’s pediatrician is the first to suspect autism, your child will need to be referred to someone who specializes in diagnosing ASD. This may be a developmental pediatrician, a psychiatrist or psychologist, and other professionals that are better able to observe and test your child in specific areas.
Often, the time immediately after the diagnosis is a difficult one for families, filled with confusion, anger and despair. These are normal feelings. But there is life after a diagnosis of autism. Life can be rewarding for an individual with an autism spectrum disorder and all the people who have the privilege of knowing that individual. While it isn’t always easy, you can learn to help your child find the world an interesting and loving place.