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Autism: Making the Diagnosis

With no medical tests available, diagnosing autism requires careful observation and screening.


Your pediatrician should be on the lookout for any abnormal development clues when you take your child in for well-baby visits.

Diagnosing ASD requires two steps, according to the CDC:

  • Developmental screening and surveillance during well-child visits to the doctor. Screening tests to look for developmental disabilities and to be sure your child has met developmental "milestones" such as talking and walking are recommended at ages 9 months, 18 months, 24 months, and 30 months. The screenings should be done routinely; if not, parents are advised to ask for them during the well-child visits. The screening helps your child's pediatrician identify possible developmental delays that might suggest autism or such problems as language or thinking skill deficits. In recent years, screening tools have been developed to better identify children not just with classic autism but with milder forms of ASD, such as Asperger's syndrome. A variety of standardized screening tools is available. Typically, they employ a checklist or questionnaire format and have a cutoff "score."
  • A comprehensive evaluation, including observations by your pediatrician and interviews with you as parents to find out more about your child's developmental history. It should also include assessment of language and speech and the use of one or more autism diagnostic tools. Among them are the Autism Diagnosis Interview, the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, and The Gilliam Autism Rating Scale.

If your child is at high risk for having an autism spectrum disorder because a parent or a sibling has been diagnosed, be aware that more intense screening or earlier screening may be needed.

If an autism spectrum disorder is suspected, you may be referred to a developmental pediatrician or another health care specialist.

Although hearing a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder can be upsetting, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the earlier the interventions can begin, according to the CDC. If the diagnosis is delayed, the chance to intervene early and improve your child's life is reduced or lost.

(From CNN: How do you know if your child has autism? Watch CNN's video.)

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Reviewed on March 27, 2008
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