How is Autism Diagnosed?

 All children with autism have problems with:

  • Social Interaction – they way they relate to others
  • Verbal and Nonverbal Communication
  • Repetitive Behaviors or Interests

Infants with the disorder won’t cuddle; they avoid eye contact and don’t seem to want or need physical contact or affection. They may become rigid or limp when they are held, cry when picked up, and show little interest in human contact. These children don’t smile or lift their arms in anticipation of being picked up. They form no attachment to parents and do not show any normal anxiety toward strangers. They do not learn the typical games of childhood, such as peek-a-boo.

As children with autism get older they often have unusual responses to sensory experiences, such as certain sounds or the way objects look. These symptoms can range from mild to severe – and will be different in different children. For instance, a child may find it easy to learn to read, but have trouble in social situations. However, with autism, each child will display communication, social, and behavioral patterns that are individual but fit into the overall diagnosis of autism.

Children with autism do not follow the typical patterns of child development. In some children, hints of future problems may be apparent from birth. In most cases, the problems in communication and social skills become more noticeable as the child gets older (between 12 and 36 months) and starts lagging behind other children of the same age.

Some parents report the changes as taking place over a short period of time. They notice that their children suddenly start to reject people, act strangely, and lose language and social skills they had before. In other cases, there is a slowing in the level of progress so that the difference between the child with autism and other children the same age becomes more and more noticeable over a longer period of time.

While a person with autism can have symptoms ranging from mild to severe, about 10% of these children have an extraordinary ability in one area, such as mathematics, memory, music, or art. Such children are known as “autistic savants.”

Although there are many concerns about labeling a young child with autism, the earlier the diagnosis of autism is made, the sooner actions to help the child can begin. Evidence over the last 15 years has shown that intensive early intervention in optimal educational settings for at least two years during the preschool years results in improved outcomes in most young children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.2

In order to diagnose autism, medical professionals look at a child’s specific behaviors. Some of these behaviors may be obvious in the first few months of a child’s life, or they may appear at any time during the early years.

In order to be diagnosed with autism the child must have had problems in at least one of these areas: communication, socialization, or restricted behavior before the age of three.

The diagnosis has two stages. The first stage is a developmental screening during “well child” check-ups. The second stage involves a thorough evaluation by a multidisciplinary team.

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Want to learn more about how autism is diagnosed?

Autism Society