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What is Involved in an Autism Diagnosis?

D. Waldman
D. Waldman

For a long time, autism was an extremely rare and often unheard of disease. As the medical community became more aware of what autism entailed, diagnoses became much more frequent. Unfortunately, the greatest challenge involved with an autism diagnosis is the fact that are no solid medical tests that can provide a definite yes or no as to whether or not a child is autistic. The most accurate autism diagnosis, instead, relies on a series of professional observations, the completion of multiple behavioral checklists, and parent interviews and medical history.

The most common autism diagnosis typically requires observed developmental challenges in a child under the age of three. Developmental issues are often seen in one or more of three areas: communication skills, social interaction, and behavioral repetition. The professional attempting to provide the autism diagnosis will pay careful attention to these three factors, as they are also the easiest to monitor in younger children. If impairment is witnessed, the child will then be rated against a series of checklists.

Many children and adolescents who have Asperger's syndrome are highly intelligent.
Many children and adolescents who have Asperger's syndrome are highly intelligent.

There are several checklists that are commonly used to assist in determining a correct autism diagnosis, including the Childhood Autism Rating Scale, Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale, and the Autism Diagnostic Interview. They commonly feature a large number of yes or no questions that, when tallied, can be used to determine if an autism diagnosis is probable. The various ratings on each checklist can also help to determine where a child potentially sits on the Autism Spectrum, which varies from highly functional to severely non-functional.

While the use of observation and completed checklists are acceptable forms of determining a correct diagnosis, the medical community also relies on the technical definition of autism and it's potential side effects as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The guide includes detailed symptoms grouped into one of the same three observational categories — social skills, communication skills, and repetitive nature. In order to receive an autism diagnosis, the child must display a minimum of six of the listed side effects, with at least two of the side effects coming from the social skills category and one each from both the communication skills and behavioral repetition categories. This is also the guide used to determine an autism diagnosis for purposes of receiving state aid, medical assistance, or disability payments.

The final item taken into account when attempting to diagnoses an autistic child comes directly from the parents. This includes detailed parental interviews, focusing on more detailed information about the child's developments and any impairments that have been witnessed. Since autism can be passed down, genetic testing can also be done to determine the presence of certain genes in the parents that may make the child more susceptible to autism.

Discussion Comments


Three points I'd like to make:

Many people who are knowledgeable about autism and similar conditions don't consider it a disease because in the common meaning of "disease" is "illness" -- like the flu or cancer. Most would say it's more accurate to call autism a condition, disorder, or (in severe cases) a disability.

Since this entry was made, the DSM-V has been released; though the actual definition of autism spectrum disorders hasn't changed, the way it's categorized has. Though some people consider this merely an issue of semantics, it has potentially complicated the way people can get assistance or services, or where a student is placed.

Two other diagnostic tools, VB-MAPP (Verbal and Behavioral Milestones Assessment and Placement Program) and ABBLS (Assessment of Basic Language and Learning skills) are used in some schools and other treatment programs. Though they're not medical diagnostic tools, they can be very valuable in identifying barriers to the acquisition of language and behavior skills, creating an effective curriculum/lesson plan for the individual child, and mapping progress objectively and clearly.

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    • Many children and adolescents who have Asperger's syndrome are highly intelligent.
      By: Igor Mojzes
      Many children and adolescents who have Asperger's syndrome are highly intelligent.