Because the symptoms of autism can vary from mild to severe, a child's behavior may initially be mistaken as normal, even by parents, teacher, and doctors. Additionally, because many children with autism are also diagnosed with additional disorders, some autistic behavior may remain unnoticed, especially when the autistic behavior is mild.
At first, you may visit your family physician or pediatrician in order to diagnose autism. During this visit, your doctor may rely on a questionnaire to record parent and doctor's observations of the child. This is a preliminary screening so that your doctor can determine if a further evaluation is needed.
If your family doctor suspects autism, you may be referred to a team including neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, speech therapists, and other professionals with experience with autism. This may be done by a center where a team of professionals will work together to evaluate your child to make a diagnosis. Here, your child's cognitive and language skills will be evaluated, along with a neurological examination. Any of the several of the tests that may be conducted include:
CAT scan (Computer-Assisted Axial Tomography) - During a CAT scan, a specialized instrument takes an X-ray of a child's entire head, so that doctors can identify any brain abnormalities. These abnormalities may indicate a problem other than autism.
Direct observations - Professional observations may involve observing your child in various environments. These tests may be function or play-based. The goal of direct observation is to determine why a particular, possible-autistic behavior is occurring or may involve watching a child and parent's interaction during normal play time activities. Furthermore, experts can assess a child's overall language, cognitive, and social behavior in different environments.
EEG (electroencephalogram) - An EEG measures brain waves to show brain abnormalities, such as tumors, seizure-related problems, etc. Taking anywhere from 1 to 24 hours, this pain-free test involves placing sensors on the scalp to measure brain activity.
Genetic screening - Genetics are widely believed to play some role in autistic behavior. An analysis of your child's genes can help doctors determine if autism or a related developmental disorder may be the cause of symptoms.
Hearing tests - Hearing specialists, called audiologists examine children's hearing abilities to determine if a hearing impairment is causing non-responsiveness. These tests can involve audiogram, brain-stem evoked response, and/or a tympanogram. Tests sometimes involve response to an audio stimulus (e.g. blinking).
Metabolic screening - Some children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorders have more successful treatments that utilize specific diets. To understand if your child's metabolism can be a factor, blood and urine samples may be taken.
MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) - MRIs record an image of the brain in order to identify possible abnormalities. During MRI, a powerful magnet takes extremely detailed images of the brain.
Autism diagnosis difficulties
Diagnosing autism can be difficult for a number of reasons. Autistic behavior may be confused with slow development of an otherwise healthy child. Additionally, because autism is a neurological disorder, no single test can confirm a diagnosis. This is why many health professionals work as a team during diagnosis. Your team of doctors will want to first rule out other various disorders, before a diagnosis of autism is made.
Usually, tests can be adapted to meet the needs of your child. But sometimes children as labeled "un-testable" during observation, meaning that test results are inconclusive. This may be because a child resists a test, does not understand the test and expectations, does not understand the questions, or is having difficulty understanding the language itself.
If your child is diagnosed with autism, you may feel guilty, distraught, or overwhelmed with what the future may bring for your child. However, as soon as a diagnosis is made, treatment should begin. Treatment for autism is most successful if begun by age 3: the earlier the better. To learn more about autism treatments, continue reading for more information.