Diagnosing autism in children

Autism usually occurs in children before the age of 3 so it is important to obtain a diagnosis at an early stage rather than waiting until they have reached puberty or adulthood.

The sooner a diagnosis is reached the sooner a treatment plan can be devised which contains strategies for managing this condition. This will be undertaken in conjunction with your GP and a specialist autism team, headed by a consultant psychologist.

A diagnosis is reached after a series of tests which include:

These are followed by a diagnostic report. These are discussed in greater detail as separate sections.

Further information on autism can be found on the National Autistic Society (NAS).

Does my child have an autism spectrum disorder?

It is not easy to tell if your child has an autism spectrum disorder but there are a few indicators of this which are mainly to do with their development.

Children develop in different ways and at different speeds but there are milestones in the development process which all children progress to. As a parent you are likely to be concerned with these as they are confirmation that your child has developed an important skill for a particular age range, e.g. crawling on all fours.

Developmental milestones

These developmental milestones are based upon motor skills, cognitive skills, behavioural skills, sensory skills and social skills. They start at birth and continue to the age of 3.

Basically, your child should be able to perform more complex tasks the older he/she gets.

Examples of developmental milestones:

  • 6 months: able to pick up an object, recognise their parents, sleep for up to 8 hours a day and articulate sounds.
  • 1 year: able to walk unaided (or with help), clings to parents, points to objects and speak several words.
  • 2 years: able to run and walk, increased range of words, can kick a ball and communicate in a simple manner with others.

The aim of these milestones is to determine how well your child is doing at various ages, e.g. 6 months, 1 year, 18 months etc. They should be able to perform the tasks mentioned above, and several others.

If there is a delay in any stages of their development then it may suggest a problem such as a spectrum disorder. But it is important to be aware of the different rates at which children develop. Some children develop these skills early on whereas others are ’late developers’.

So, if your child appears to be late at picking up a particular skill such as tying a shoelace then it does not automatically mean that are autistic.

Another aspect to this is the fact that there are variations of autism which range from mild through to severe. If someone has symptoms at the mild end of the spectrum then these can be difficult to diagnose. This is particularly the case if someone displays a subtle indicator or two of this condition which is instead attributed to being eccentric.

This means that this condition is undiagnosed throughout their childhood and only comes to light in their adult years.

Indications of an autistic spectrum disorder

There are several signs that suggest a disorder such as classic autism or Asperger’s Syndrome which include:

  • Your baby/child does not engage in ’baby talk’
  • Your child/baby does not make eye contact or look at objects which have been pointed to.
  • Your baby/child does not smile or show delight when he/she looks at you.
  • Your baby/child does not wave his/her hands or point at things

These and other signs are discussed further in our symptoms of autism section.

There are three areas of development which the autistic child has difficulty with which is common to all types of autism. These are:

1. Social communication

2. Social interaction

3. Social imagination

These are essential skills for navigating and dealing with the world, but fail to develop properly in autistic people. A child with these three difficulties will demonstrate this by being unable to form friendships, play with others, and engage in conversation or share toys.

Other areas include behaviour and special interests (particular obsession). Your child may engage in repetitive behaviour such as licking an object repeatedly or waving their hands around. Another aspect is that of developing an obsessive interest in a subject or hobby.

What you will notice is that these symptoms become more noticeable the older your child gets. The symptoms of autism become apparent around the age of 2 and are often detected during a routine check up with your health visitor.

Speaking to your GP

If you think that your child has signs of an autism spectrum disorder then your first step is to visit your GP. But this may have already mentioned during a routine visit by your health visitor.

Make a note of any autism symptoms to take with you to the surgery.

Your GP perform what is known as a ’screening interview’with your child. This interview or ’CHAT’ (checklist for autism in toddlers) is only carried out with children of pre-school age.

It is not designed as a diagnostic tool per se but can help with identifying behaviours which suggest some form of autistic spectrum disorder.

Referral to an autism team

This interview may be performed by your GP or as part of a series of tests by a specialist autism team. This team usually includes a paediatrician, consultant psychologist/psychiatrist and other healthcare professionals. They will conduct these tests before arriving at a diagnosis. Therefore it is important that you find someone who has knowledge and understanding of autism who will suggest a suitable course of treatment.

This treatment will not cure your child of autism but it will help him/her to cope with society on a day to day basis.

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