Screening & Diagnosis

Core characteristics of autism

An autism diagnosis affects individuals throughout their lives in two core ways:

  1. challenges related to social communication and social interactions
  2. restricted repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities

This does not mean that autistic individuals do not engage in communication, socially, or otherwise.

It does mean that their behavior in these core areas are different from those observed in children of the same developmental age.

Early indicators of autism

  • being limp or floppy when not seated upright or when being held
  • rarely crying in environments that would typically induce crying (such as pain, hunger, or discomfort)
  • being difficult to comfort (or being comforted only by motion)
  • a limited understanding or use of specific gestures or other communication methods
  • a lack of babbling, pointing, or gesturing by 12 months of age
  • complete lack of speech by 16 months of age
  • an inability to combine words by 2 years of age
  • limited eye contact or social smiling (smiling in responses to parents/caregivers)
  • limited interest in or awareness of others in the environment
  • unusual (high or low) sensitivity to the sensory features of an object or environment (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel)

  • difficulty expressing wants or needs
  • have limited conversation skills or even loss of expressive language
  • high levels of stress related to minor changes within their environment, such as their favorite toy being put away in a different spot
  • spend a significant amount of time seeking sensory input (such as spinning in circles or wedging themselves into tight spaces)

Children over two years old are generally strong visual learners and react well to visual cues and routines.

  • engagement in repetitive motor movements such as flapping their hands or even hurting themselves
  • oftentimes a lowered sensitivity to pain
  • limited or no imaginative play or understanding of social rules or interactions of playtime.

  • engagement in repetitive motor movements such as flapping their hands or even hurting themselves
  • a lowered sensitivity to pain
  • limited or no imaginative play or understanding of social rules or interactions of playtime
  • failure to respond to his or her name
  • strong attachment to a particular toy or object
  • playing with toys or objects in a different manner from typical peers
  • limited smiling
  • lack of attending to what others are attending to (i.e., joint attention)

Although the presence of these or any early indicators does not necessarily mean that a child is autistic, it may suggest that a child should be screened for autism or developmental delays by a medical professional.

Fundamentals of a diagnosis

If you notice any characteristics or indicators of autism, ask your physician. First, individuals may undergo a general developmental screening, hearing assessment, and, if needed, additional medical testing specific to parent and/or physician concerns. If concerns remain, a physician or pediatrician would recommend a comprehensive evaluation by a multidisciplinary team to administer specific diagnostic screening tools and possibly a referral to other specialists.

The following professionals are qualified to provide a diagnosis:

  • psychiatrists
  • developmental pediatricians
  • pediatric neurologists
  • psychologists with expertise in childhood onset disorders and autism

Other disciplines, such as therapists or social workers may screen and suggest further referral for autism evaluation but are not qualified to make formal medical diagnoses.

What to expect during a comprehensive evaluation

One or more of the providers noted above would observe your child’s:

  • social skills and communication
  • cognitive ability (IQ)
  • play skills
  • everyday skills such as feeding and dressing
A toddler playing with a toy on top of a rug

The provider may also conduct interviews with the child’s parents and/or review information from other caregivers (such as teachers and therapists) or providers to learn how the child behaves and interacts across settings.

They will also want to obtain information about the child’s developmental, social, family, and behavioral histories.

Additional testing may be undertaken to rule out other medical, mental health, and/or neurodevelopmental disorders. The medical professional may also utilize standardized diagnostic tools, such as the Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised (ADI-R) or the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – Generic (ADOS-G). A medical diagnosis of ASD is made according to diagnostic criteria as described in the current version of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5; APA, 2013).

Educational classification vs. medical diagnosis

While a medical diagnosis of autism helps you identify service needs related to the overall health of your child, an educational classification is needed to identify and address needs within a school setting.

Your child may be eligible for special education services:

  • if they meet diagnostic criteria for autism as outlined within the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and
  • if such symptoms or challenges result in a consistent and negative impact upon the child’s academic achievement and/or functioning performance.

(As specified within the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) and the Indiana Department of Education Article 7.)

A medical diagnosis of autism may be used in consideration of eligibility decisions but is not necessary or sufficient to make the educational classification.

Determining special education eligibility

A multidisciplinary team comprised of qualified professionals (e.g., school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and special education teachers, among others depending on the student’s unique needs) will conduct an educational evaluation of the student’s:

  • academic achievement
  • functional skills across settings
  • communication skills
  • motor and sensory responses
  • developmental history

Following and based upon this evaluation, a case conference committee (CCC) comprised of various school professionals and the student’s parents will decide whether the student’s autistic traits result in a consistent and significant negative impact on their academic achievement or functional performance. If the CCC concludes that the student’s autismdoes negatively interfere with learning, they would be determined to be eligible for special education services within the school setting.

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