Autism is not an easy condition to diagnose. Even though its not uncommon for parents to notice that there is something odd or different about their child long before anyone else, most children with autism aren’t diagnosed until they are 2 to 3 years old or much later. In many cases, especially in mild autism, there exists a big gray area between a child who has mild autism (often simply called “some autistic tendencies”) and a child who simply doesnt fit accepted behavioral/social norms. In fact, many children who would simply have been considered a little peculiar are diagnosed as autistic these days.
There are currently no easy tests for diagnosing autism, although there may be in the future as researchers identify genetic components of autism. Currently, though, theres no blood test, no MRI, no medical way to tell if a child has autism. Instead, doctors rely on interpretation of a childs behavior, communication skills and abilities and developmental level to reach a diagnosis.
Medical tests can be done to rule out other disorders, since many of the symptoms and behaviors associated with autism are also present in other conditions. One of the disorders related to autism, for instance, is Retts Syndrome, for which there is a medical test that is 80% accurate. Other medical problems that could account for some of the symptoms of autism are hearing loss and mental retardation.
Children suspected of having autism should ideally be assessed by a multi-disciplinary team consisting of specialists in neurology, psychology, developmental pediatric, speech and language pathology and other professionals familiar with autism.
A psychologist may sit down with you and have you fill out charts and assessment checklists to help identify particular behaviors and symptoms. You will probably be asked a lot of questions about your childs behavior. These checklists are all called instruments, and they can help your childs doctor more accurately diagnose any problems that your child may be having. Some of the instruments used to diagnose autism include the CARS (Childhood Autism Rating Scale), the GARS (Gilliam Autism Rating Scale), the CHAT (Checklist for Autism in Toddlers), the BRIAC (Behavior Rating Instrument for Autistic and Other Atypical Children) and the PIA (Parent Interviews for Autism).
Your childs diagnosis may read that your child meets the criteria for autism. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders Fourth Edition, usually called the DSM IV, contains a list of criteria for determining whether a child has autism. It consists of two lists of behaviors that a child with autism may exhibit. A child who exhibits more than six symptoms from the list, including at least two from the first list, meets the criteria for autism, as long as the symptoms began before the age of three and are not part of another syndrome or disorder that the child has.