How Autism Is Diagnosed

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

How Autism Is Diagnosed

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a disorder that has become more prevalent in the last 30 years. It is considered a neurological and developmental disorder that is typically diagnosed between the ages of 1 and 5 years old. ASD causes deficiencies in the following areas:

  • Learning and academics
  • Socialization skills
  • Communication
  • Impulse control
  • Behavioral regulation

What Is the Child Screened For?

Autism is diagnosed based on a spectrum of severity. Assessment is performed through an evaluation of symptoms. A child being screened is monitored for behaviors that indicate autism, like:

  • Failure to make eye contact
  • No use of verbal language
  • Not responding to his or her name
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Tantrums
  • Fixation on inanimate, mechanical objects (trains, cars, appliances, cookware, etc.)

Who Performs the Evaluation?

A multidisciplinary team performs evaluations. Many medical doctors are not equipped to complete a screening for autism on their own, but can indicate early signs. If the child is showing symptoms of ASD, they will be referred to further screening. Professionals that will be involved in the screening may include:

  • Pediatrician
  • Psychiatrist or Psychologist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Mental health counselor or therapist
  • Language pathologist

Each of these professionals will aid in diagnosis and treatment planning.

What is the Diagnostic Criteria for ASD?

Diagnosis of ASD based on a scale that reflects the severity of impairment. There are three levels of severity:

  • Level 1: Requiring support.
  • Level 2: Requiring substantial support
  • Level 3: Requiring very substantial support

Each level of severity is based on the prevalence and severity of impairments of:

  • Social functioning
    • Signs of empathy
    • Social-emotional awareness
    • Interest in emotional expressions
    • Interest in interacting with others
    • Interest in developing or maintaining relationships
    • Understanding of relationship dynamic
  • Communication skills
    • Engagement in verbal communication or social interaction
    • Ability to make eye contact or respond to names or attempts to get attention
    • Communicating through pointing, grunting, and tantrums
    • Use of facial expressions for different emotions
  • Intellectual functioning
    • Academic challenges or deficits
    • Use of imaginative play or problem solving
    • Ability to ‘think outside of the box’
  • Behavioral symptoms
    • Restrictive behaviors (the need to stick to a routine or schedule)
    • Repetitive behaviors
    • Motor tics or rituals

What is the First Step in Seeking Help?

If you have concerns about your child, it is important to address the situation as early as possible. Early intervention will be important in the child’s recovery. To begin, check for signs of ASD. Children with ASD will:

  • Struggle with developing verbal communication skills
  • Be disinterested in engaging with other children or adults
  • Not respond to his or her name
  • Not respond to signs of affection
  • Throw tantrums
  • Have repetitive behaviors and tics

You may use the Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) as a reference. The M-CHAT is a checklist of signs, symptoms, and informative questions about your child’s behavior and development. If the questions on this checklist reflect your child, it is important to begin the screening process.

The first step to having your child evaluated is to make an appointment with a pediatrician. Your pediatrician will make an initial evaluation and refer your to professionals who can screen your child. They will also help you develop a treatment plan. The treatment plan will include both rehabilitative measures and family therapy. Education for family members will be important for maintaining structure for the child at home.


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