What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder typically detected in young children, and is a lifelong condition. ‘Spectrum’ refers to low-functioning autism, high-functioning autism (commonly known as Asperger syndrome) and everything in between.

ASD has unique characteristics but can be challenging to detect as symptoms differ from person to person. For example – in the past, ASD has often been misdiagnosed as attention-deficit/hyperactivity (ADHD). However, ongoing research and development of more effective diagnosis tools in recent years has led to more accurate diagnosis.

Recommended: Autism Assessment Available At New Vision Psychology

How to Know If Your Child Should Get Tested for Autism

As with other mental health conditions, there are many difficulties when it comes to diagnosing autism spectrum disorder. Unfortunately there is no easy ‘autism test’, with genetic testing and standard blood tests unable to provide answers. Rather, diagnosis involves prolonged evaluation and a series of tests. So – while it is possible for children to be diagnosed as young as age 2, it is more common for them to be diagnosed after age 4.

As a parent, your job is to be aware of the early signs listed below and seek further help from a health professional if necessary. Early intervention is essential to provide your child with with optimal support.

Diagnosis Starts with ‘Early Signs’

Although diagnosing autism spectrum disorder takes time, symptoms will often be apparent in early childhood.

If you suspect that your child has ASD, you are likely already aware of some of the following early signs:

  • Lack of interest in interacting with others (such as other children, caregivers and family members)
  • Limited eye contact
  • Restricted verbal communication (e.g. limited vocabulary)
  • Obsessive behaviour (e.g. overwhelming attachment to a specific object, activity or topic)
  • Difficulty adjusting to a change in daily routine
  • Hyperactivity

Developmental Monitoring: You Know Your Child Best!

ASD is a developmental disorder and as such, developmental monitoring is a crucial next step in diagnosis.

It involves observing your child over time to ensure they meet typical milestones for their age. Comparing your child’s development to that of their peers is a common way to do this. However, using developmental checklists is also highly recommended. Developmental checklists are based on a vast amount of autism research and can typically be found on government health websites. Since these have been written specifically for each age group, they provide comprehensive information about when your child should be reaching developmental milestones.

Developmental Screening: Acting Early Matters

If you notice signs of ANY developmental delays, it’s time to ask your doctor about developmental screening for autism spectrum disorder.

Screening uses tools to identify any delays in normal childhood development. It involves a test or questionnaire about your child’s development.

The test can be administered by clinicians, such as those at our practices, or other professionals (e.g. schools may have professionals). Children can also be screened during their regular childhood health checks at your request.

Developmental screening is essential (even if thorough developmental monitoring has been done) because it offers formal, unbiased results which are needed to move onto a more comprehensive evaluation.

Official Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Screening tests are not able to give a definitive diagnosis, but will indicate if further evaluation is required.

This is where a specialist can help. Trained specialists are able to perform a formal developmental evaluation which takes a closer look at any areas of concern identified during screening.

Formal developmental evaluations may involve observation of your child, a structured test given to your child and a questionnaire and interview provided by you – the caregiver.

Child psychologists at our practices are equipped with three complementary tools for diagnosis:

  • ABAS-3: This is a questionnaire covering three domains – conceptual, practical and social. It takes around 15-20 minutes for the caregiver to fill out. From there, a score is established to assist the clinician with diagnosis.
  • ADOS-2: This is a structured test administered to the child (the caregiver may also assist if necessary). It is play-based so that the psychologist can observe the child in a natural environment. It typically takes 45 minutes to an hour, during which time the clinician engages in a scoring process to summarise the observation.
  • ADI-R: This is a structured interview conducted with the caregiver, covering three domains – language/communication, reciprocal social interactions and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped behaviours and interests. It takes 1.5 – 2.5 hours including scoring.
    Following results, a formal diagnosis can be made by the specialist. Early intervention services and/or further treatment will then be discussed to best address your child’s needs.

ASD Treatment Options

While there is currently no cure for ASD, there are several interventions which may reduce the severity of symptoms. Treatment plans are designed to address your child’s needs by drawing on their unique strengths and challenges. This will help your child meet their full potential and ability to participate in society.

ASD affects social communication, behaviour and/or cognitive ability, and this is reflected in treatment.

Categories of treatment include:

  • Behaviour and communication approaches. (e.g. ABA, working with an occupational therapist or speech therapist, social skills training and assistive technology)
  • Diet
  • Medication
  • Complementary treatment (e.g. alternative medicine)

While this may seem like a lot of information, our clinicians are here to assist you every step of they way. ASD diagnosis and treatment can be a long and daunting process but our psychologists, along standardised assessment tools will help to find a plan that is right for you and your child.