How to Diagnose Autism Early

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Autism is a developmental disorder with a wide range of signs. Many of these traits are shown through communication and language difficulties. It can be challenging to diagnose autism early on, but there are certain signs to look out for. In particular, there are signs you should look for at home, and diagnostic tools that your doctor can use to determine whether or not your child is autistic. Scroll down to Step 1 for more information.

Assessing Your Child at Home

Know when signs begin appearing. Some signs may begin to emerge as early as 6 to 12 months. Specialists tend to hold off giving a definite diagnosis until approximately 18 months. This is due to the patterns of autistic traits in early development. Some of the signs may fade in, and fade back out again.[1]

  • This spiking and diminishing of traits can occur up until approximately 24 months. Signs should be taken seriously, but some children show delays and then catch up developmentally by the time they’re 24 months old.
Recognize signs of autism. The following are some signs that may point to autism in children between 12 and 24 months old. Remember, if you’re in doubt, visit your local doctor. They will be able to refer you to the right specialist. Take note if your child[2]:

  • Does not make eye contact.
  • Sleeps in an awkward position.
  • May be highly sensitive to certain sensory stimuli.
  • Talks in an unusual tone or pitch; this may be displayed through an unusual babble.
  • Carries around specific items for extended periods of time.
  • Makes repetitive movements with their body or hands (stimming), especially to express emotion or calm down.
  • Plays with toys in an abnormal fashion.
  • May appear under-active, or disinterested.
  • May be hard to soothe, not liking to be cuddled.
  • Shows signs of being highly fussy.
Look out for signs that usually develop at specific ages. Some signs only present themselves when your child reaches a certain age. If you are concerned your child may be autistic, look for the signs listed in the previous step, and keep in mind how quickly your baby develops relative to his/her peers. Here are some indicators of a definite delay:[3]:

  • Before 6 months: No big smiles or joyful expressions
  • Before 9 months: No mutual sharing of sounds, smiles or other expressions.
  • Before 12 months: Lack of response to their name, no gestures like waving, pointing or reaching in response to your own gestures.
  • Before 16 months: No spoken words.
  • Before 24 months: No original two-word phrases. May rely on echolalia. This does not include imitation.
Assess your child’s gross and fine motor skills. If your child is in school, ask their teacher about any motor skill issues.

  • Examples of fine motor skill problems include being unable to color correctly, or difficulty using scissors to cut paper.
  • A child with gross motor skills may take a long time to pack up books or put on jackets, and be the last one out to recess.
Trust your instincts, but keep in mind that these traits do not necessarily mean your child is autistic. You know your child better than anyone else, which means that you are more likely to notice changes than a doctor. If you truly have a gut feeling that something is abnormal, it does not hurt to visit a specialist or psychologist.

  • If you have any concerns, talk to a doctor who specializes in autism, rather than your normal medical provider.
  • Keep in mind that the abnormalities may be due to something else, such as ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or anxiety.

Seeking Medical Diagnosis

Schedule regular check-ups for your child. Once your child is born, it’s a good idea to regularly have your child screened up until the age of three. This will allow you to keep track of developmental milestones, making sure that your child is developing normally.

Contact your doctor if you have recognized some signs of autism. If you have noticed signs like those listed in the previous method, make an appointment with a doctor who specifically deals with developmental issues in children. Make the appointment as soon as you spot signs, because early intervention can greatly improve your child’s development and social skills.

Be aware that the diagnosis process can take time. Diagnosing your child will not happen overnight, as there’s unfortunately no single medical test to give you a definitive answer. Multiple evaluations will be used, and these will yield a more accurate diagnosis.

Be prepared for a parental interview. A parental interview is when your doctor asks you questions about your child’s medial background, as well as about the signs that you have noticed. He or she may also ask you about your family’s medical and mental history. In particular, talk to the doctor about:

  • What signs you have noticed
  • When you began noticing the signs
  • How severe the traits are
Expect a medical examination. Your doctor will examine your child in the same way that your child would be examined during a normal doctors appointment. On top of the normal physical test, the doctor is likely to do:[5]

  • A neurological exam.
  • Genetic testing.
  • Other lab tests.
Schedule a hearing test and lead screening for your child. If a child has trouble hearing, it can greatly affect their language and social skills. If there’s a hearing impairment, you may not be dealing with autism at all, as hearing impairments can lead to similar traits to those of autism.

Understand that your doctor will most likely ask for an observational period.Your child will be observed within various settings and environments. The doctor will be looking for abnormal behaviors, and how your child interacts with people around them.[6]

  • For example, one observational period may involve the doctor giving your child a specific toy and watching how your child plays with the toy.
Depending on the test results, your doctor may choose to run some more tests.These tests include:

  • Cognitive assessments: This may be in the form of an intelligence test, or some sort of cognitive assessment.
  • Speech evaluation: A specialist will focus on your child’s speech, and how she communicates. The specialist will be looking for signs directly related to autism. These may be strange tones, or lack of response to verbal cues.
  • Adaptive assessment: This will test your child’s problem solving skills in real life scenarios. These can be tasks like feeding themselves, or simply testing their verbal skills.
  • Sensory-motor tasks: A physical therapist will observe your child’s motor skills, and sensory processing skills.

 

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