Presently, there is not a medical test that can diagnose autism. Instead, specially trained physicians and psychologists administer autism-specific behavioral evaluations.
Often parents are the first to notice their child is showing unusual behaviors such as failing to make eye contact, not responding to his or her name or playing with toys in unusual, repetitive ways.
The Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) is a list of informative questions about the child. The answers can indicate whether he or she should be further evaluated by a specialist such as a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist or psychologist. (Take the M-CHAT screening test here.)
A typical diagnostic evaluation involves a multi-disciplinary team of doctors including a pediatrician, psychologist, speech and language pathologist and occupational therapist. Genetic testing may likewise be recommended, as well as screening for related medical issues such as sleep difficulties. This type of comprehensive evaluation helps parents understand as much as possible about their child's strengths and needs.
Sometimes an autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed later in life, often in relation to learning, social or emotional difficulties. As with young children, diagnosis of adolescents and adults involves observation and interviews by a trained specialist. Often, a diagnosis brings relief to those who have long struggled with difficulties in relating socially while not understanding the source of their difficulties. A diagnosis can also open access to therapies and assistive technologies that can improve function in areas of difficulty and improve overall quality of life.
It can be a very difficult time for families who are awaiting a diagnosis or who have been recently diagnosed. When working with these patients and their families be sure to offer support and compassion. Many people have compared receiving an autism diagnosis to experiencing death: the dreams and aspirations for the child have now been changed drastically due to a lifelong disability.3