5 Things to Know About Diagnosing Autism

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Sarah Lewis, PharmD on September 22, 2020
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    Autism Screening and Diagnosis: What to Know
    Autism—or autism spectrum disorder—is a group of developmental disorders of the brain. People with ASD have social, communication, language and behavioral problems. Autism is a spectrum because these problems can range from mild to severe.

    About 3.5 million Americans live with some form of autism, according to the Autism Society. Symptoms typically appear in early childhood. Parents often seek medical advice when they notice something isn’t quite right with their child. However, it may take some time before a diagnosis is final. Doctors also screen for developmental problems throughout infancy and toddlerhood.
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    1. There is no medical test to diagnose autism.
    There is no medical test, such as a blood test or imaging exam that can diagnose autism. Instead, the diagnosis relies on assessments of a child’s development. This includes how the child communicates, how the child interacts socially, how the child behaves in a variety of situations, and the child’s interests.
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    2. Specially trained healthcare providers diagnose autism.
    Your pediatrician is the place to start if you suspect a problem. Developmental screenings may also find a potential issue. In either case, your doctor can recommend a healthcare provider with experience diagnosing autism. This is vital since the diagnosis depends on skilled observation. The types of providers who may specialize in diagnosing autism include:

    • Child and adolescent psychiatrists

    • Developmental pediatricians

    • Pediatric neurologists

    • Psychologists

    If you are looking for a doctor, search Healthgrades.com for an autism specialist in your area.
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    3. The American Psychiatric Association defines the criteria for autism.
    The American Psychiatric Association provides this information in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Your doctor will explore the diagnostic criteria by observing your child and interviewing you.
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    4. The first set of criteria is persistent impairment in social communication and interactions.
    There are two basic sets of criteria for autism. The first relates to social communication and interactions. In order to diagnose autism, your doctor should note the following types of deficits:

    • Social-emotional reciprocity. This means your child struggles with the back-and-forth exchanges of being social, such as conversation. It can also include problems sharing experiences and emotions with others, and initiating or responding to social interactions.

    • Nonverbal communication. This may include problems making eye contact and understanding gestures, body language, or facial expressions.

    • Developing, maintaining and understanding relationships. This may include problems making friends or engaging in imaginative play. It can also mean a lack of interest in others.

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    5. The second set of criteria is restrictive, repetitive behaviors, interests or activities.
    The second set of criteria requires your child to have two of the following:

    • Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech. Examples include body rocking, lining up toys, repeating sounds or phrases, and using odd phrases.

    • Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior. This means your child may need the same exact routine every day and become very upset at small changes. He or she may have very rigid thinking and ways of speaking and behaving.

    • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus. This may include a strong attachment to unusual objects, excessively narrow areas of interest, or very repetitive interests.

    • Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment.  This means your child may be extra sensitive to sensory input or lack sensitivity altogether, such as not reacting to pain. It can also mean your child has an unusual interest in sensory stimulation, such as constantly touching an object.

    Once your doctor diagnoses autism, there is help for your child. Therapies can help your child refine social skills, adapt to changes in the environment, learn everyday life skills, and improve communication. Therapies include:

    • Applied behavioral analysis

    • Occupational therapy

    • Physical therapy

    • Sensory integration therapy

    • Speech therapy

    Medications may also reduce the severity of some symptoms, such as anxiety and mood swings.
5 Things to Know About Diagnosing Autism

About The Author

Sarah Lewis is a pharmacist and a medical writer with over 25 years of experience in various areas of pharmacy practice. Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy degree from West Virginia University and a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy. She completed Pharmacy Practice Residency training at the University of Pittsburgh/VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System. 
  1. Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about DSM-5. Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/dsm-5/faq
  2. Autism Spectrum Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/index.shtml#part_145438
  3. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html
  4. Autism Spectrum Disorder: Tests and Diagnosis. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder/basics/tests-diagnosis/con-20021148
  5. Diagnostic Criteria for 299.00 Autism Spectrum Disorder. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-dsm.html
  6. Facts and Statistics. Autism Society. http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/
  7. How Is Autism Diagnosed? Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism/diagnosis
  8. Medical Diagnosis. Autism Society. http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/diagnosis/medical-diagosis/
  9. What Is Autism? Autism Speaks. https://www.autismspeaks.org/what-autism
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Sep 22
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.