Autism - Exams and Tests
The American Academy of Pediatrics
(AAP) recommends screening children for
autism during regularly scheduled
well-child visits.5 This policy helps doctors identify
signs of autism early in its course. Early diagnosis and treatment can help the
child reach his or her full potential.
When a developmental delay
is recognized in a child, further testing can help a doctor find out whether
the problem is related to autism, another
autism spectrum disorder, or a
condition with similar symptoms, such as
language delays or
avoidant personality disorder. If your primary care
provider does not have specific training or experience in developmental
problems, he or she may refer your child to a specialist—such as a
developmental pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a speech therapist, a psychologist, or a child
psychiatrist—for the additional testing.
Various guidelines and questionnaires are used to help a doctor determine the
specific type of developmental delay a child has. These include:2
- Medical history. During the medical
history interview, a doctor asks general questions about a child's development,
such as whether a child shows parents things by pointing to objects. Young
children with autism often point to items they want, but do not point to show
parents an item and then check to see if parents are looking at the item being
- Diagnostic guidelines for autism. The American
Association of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has established
guidelines for diagnosing autism.2 The criteria are
designed so a doctor can assess a child's behavior relating to core symptoms of
- Clinical observations. A
doctor may want to observe the developmentally delayed child in different
situations. The parents may be asked to interpret whether certain behaviors are
usual for the child in those circumstances.
- Developmental and
intelligence tests. The AACAP also recommends that tests be given to evaluate
whether a child's developmental delays affect his or her ability to think and
Physical assessments and laboratory tests. Other tests may be used to determine whether a
physical problem may be causing symptoms. These tests include:
- Physical exam, including head
circumference, weight, and height measurements, to determine whether the child
has a normal growth pattern.
- Hearing tests, to determine whether hearing problems may be causing
developmental delays, especially those related to
social skills and language use.
- Testing for lead poisoning, especially if a condition called
pica (in which a person craves substances that are not
food, such as dirt or flecks of old paint) is present. Children with
developmental delays usually continue putting items in their mouth after this
stage has passed in normally developing children. This practice can result in
lead poisoning, which should be identified and treated as soon as
Other lab tests may be done under specific
circumstances. These tests include:
Chromosomal analysis, which may be done
if intellectual disability is present or there is a family history of intellectual disability. For example, fragile X syndrome, which causes a range of
below-normal intelligence problems as well as autistic-like behaviors, can be
identified with a chromosomal analysis.
electroencephalograph (EEG), which is done if there
are symptoms of seizures, such as a history of staring spells or if a person
reverts to less mature behavior (developmental regression).
MRI, which may be done if
there are signs of differences in the structure of the brain.