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The Latest on Autism

How Is Autism Diagnosed?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening children for autism as part of the 18-month and 24-month well-patient visits in addition to the developmental screening performed at all healthy child wellness visits. This policy helps health professionals identify signs of autism early. Developmental screening tools, such as the Ages and Stages Questionnaire or the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT), can help assess behavior.

If a health professional discovers the following obvious signs of developmental delays, the child should immediately be referred for a full evaluation:

  • No babbling, pointing, or other gestures by 12 months
  • No single words by 16 months
  • No two-word spontaneous phrases by 24 months, with the exception of repeated phrases
  • Any loss of any language or social skills at any age

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, usually a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, speech therapist, or child psychiatrist, for additional testing. If there are no obvious signs of developmental delays or any unusual indications from the screening tests, most infants and children do not need further evaluation until the next regular checkup.

However, children who have a sibling with autism should continue to be closely monitored because they are at increased risk for autism and other developmental problems. In addition to the evaluations at well-child visits, these children should undergo testing for language delays, learning problems, poor socialization skills, and any symptoms that might suggest they have anxiety or depression.

When socialization, learning, or behavior problems develop in a person at any time or at any age, he or she should also be evaluated. Most experts believe that if a parent has a "hunch" the child may have autism, they should insist that the child be evaluated. Often, parents know when a child is not connecting with them, whereas a doctor may miss these cues.

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