By Raising Children Network
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Grown-up holding toddler with abacus credit iStockphoto/jo unruh

did you knowQuestion mark symbol

  • When parents have concerns about their child’s development, they’re usually correct.
  • If you’re worried, don’t wait – speak to your GP or child and family health nurse about your concerns.
Often, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis involves several different specialists and professionals and a range of tests. Although this might seem scary, a combination of tests and professionals can give your child an accurate autism diagnosis and develop the best treatment plan.

Autism diagnosis: what to expect

There is no single test for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Instead, autism diagnosis is based on:

  • watching how a child plays and interacts with others – that is, how your child is developing now
  • interviewing you
  • reviewing your child’s developmental history – that is, how your child has developed in the past.

Diagnosis usually involves many specialists and professionals testing and assessing your child – this is called a multidisciplinary assessment. When lots of specialists work with your child, it gives your child the best chance of an accurate diagnosis. It also helps to develop the best treatment plan.

A multidisciplinary team usually includes a paediatrician or child psychiatrist, a psychologist and a speech pathologist. It might also include other professionals like an occupational therapist.

The professionals might want to see you and your child several times. They’ll ask you questions about what your child does, how she is now, and how she has been in the past. They’ll measure your child’s strengths and weaknesses in areas like thinking, moving, communicating and so on. And they’ll watch how she interacts and plays with others.

You might need a referral to see these professionals, so your GP or child and family health nurse are great places to start.

Second opinions
You know your child best. If your GP, nurse or paediatrician doesn’t have any concerns about your child, but you’re still worried about your child’s development, get a second opinion.

Talking to other parents can be a great way to find the right doctor. Visit our forum for parents of children with ASD to connect with other parents.

Video Autism spectrum disorder diagnosis: parent stories

This short video features parents talking about their children’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Parents share their experiences of the process, from first spotting warning signs to getting a diagnosis. They note that getting a diagnosis isn’t always quick or easy, but it’s important to keep going.

In this video parents refer to PDD-NOS. Note that this diagnosis has been replaced with a single diagnosis of ASD.

Most people find the diagnosis process quite confronting. It’s not much fun having someone point out all the things that your child can’t do, things that typical children just pick up naturally. But think of this assessment as a benchmark, against which you can measure your child’s progress once they start in an intervention program.
– Seana Smith, mother of four and co-author, Australian autism handbook

Tests and tools for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder

There are standardised tools that help health professionals with diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

When diagnosing ASD, professionals like psychiatrists and psychologists will refer to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). This tool breaks down the signs and symptoms of ASD into categories. It also states how many of these must be present in each category to confirm a diagnosis of ASD.

Some of the other tests and screening measures that can help in the diagnosis of ASD include:
  • Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, Second Edition (ADOS)
  • Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R)
  • Childhood Autism Rating Scales, Second Edition (CARS-2)
  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT)
  • Developmental Behaviour Checklist (DBC)
  • Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ)
  • Psycho Educational Profile – Third Edition (PEP-3)
  • Autism Behaviour Checklist (ABC).

These tools might not identify every child on the spectrum, especially those who have only milder signs of ASD.

Testing for other medical difficulties and delays

Because other medical difficulties sometimes go along with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), your paediatrician might also do other tests, like a physical examination and history, and a hearing test. These tests:

  • check for signs of other conditions that might explain your child’s symptoms
  • help to identify any other medical problems that might need treatment.

Your child might also have a cognitive assessment (IQ test), which can identify developmental strengths and weaknesses. The assessment also identifies whether a child has an intellectual disability, common in many (but not all) children with ASD.

If your child is very young when he’s diagnosed, he might have an IQ test when he’s older – for example, in the year before he starts school.

Most children will also have a language assessment by a speech pathologist.

Waiting for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder

You might be put on a waiting list for assessment. Try not to see this as a period when nothing happens. If you can, look for options – you might be able to get an assessment sooner.  

There are also services that let you start programs and therapies without a diagnosis. 

Occasionally, the outcome of your assessment might be a recommended period of ‘watchful waiting’. This means your health professional wants to wait to see whether your child’s symptoms change with a few more months of development. It’s possible the symptoms might resolve or become more pronounced.

If you’re told to wait and watch, again the key is to be proactive:

  • Get your child checked every three months.
  • Seek a second opinion if you feel you want one.
  • Start exploring early intervention options in your area.

For more information on ASD and early intervention options, you could attend a free Early Days workshop in your area. Another option is contacting your state autism association.

Video Reactions to an ASD diagnosis

If your child is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you might go through many feelings and reactions.

As the parents in this video explain, reactions to an ASD diagnosis can include relief, sadness, shock, denial and anger. Everybody’s different, and there’s no one right way to feel. But these parents do say that it’s important to work through your emotions. This way you can start to help your child.

  • Last updated or reviewed 21-09-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Cheryl Dissanayake and Cherie Green, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University.