It can be stressful and worrying for parents to learn that their child has autism but the earlier a diagnosis is made can help ensure the best supports and treatments are implemented to get the best health outcome for your child. A diagnosis is usually made via a comprehensive assessment performed by a team of specialists. This may include a paediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist and sometimes a speech pathologist. The specialists will meet and observe the child to assess his or her communication skills, ability to interact socially and general behaviours.
Clinicians use standardised tests to make a diagnosis. The diagnostic criteria for autism are found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5 (DSM5). This is a guide used by mental health professionals to diagnose psychological disorders. Autism used to be divided into sub categories, such as Asperger’s syndrome, pervasive development disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and Rett syndrome. But DSM5 now classifies it as one condition called Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The criteria outlined in DSM includes (but is not limited to):
- Marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviours, such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
- Lack of social or emotional responses for example, lack of normal back-and-forth conversation, not sharing interests or emotions, and failure to initiate or respond to social interactions
- Problems with developing, maintaining, and understand relationships, such as difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts, difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends, not being interested in peers
- Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, such as stereotyped or repetitive motor movements (lining up toys or flipping objects), insistence on sameness and routine, a fixation on certain interests, over-reaction to sensory stimulation like noise or light.
Children can usually be diagnosed at around two, but sometimes symptoms are subtle and children are not diagnosed until they start school or even until they become adults.
If your child is diagnosed with autism, you will be guided through the various treatment options. There are education programs and support services, from a number of organisations such as Autism Spectrum Australia, available for children with autism and their parents or caregivers.
Last reviewed: November 2016