What can I do if I think a child is on the spectrum?
Every child on the spectrum is different, and therefore the signs and characteristics of autism can vary considerably. A variety of factors contribute to this, including age, gender and cognitive ability. This can make it challenging for someone who thinks that a child might be on the spectrum, but is not entirely sure what sort of signs they should be looking for.
There are, however, some common signs and characteristics of autism that can be seen in different age groups. If you think that a child might be on the spectrum, these checklists can give you an indication as to whether an autism assessment might be appropriate.
Why is an early autism diagnosis beneficial?
If you have looked at these checklists and think that your child, may be on the spectrum, then an autism assessment is recommended.
There are a number of reasons why getting an autism diagnosis sooner rather than later is beneficial. Firstly, in the immediate and short term, it enables you to have a greater understanding of autism in general, as well as how it might impact on your child in particular. In addition, the sooner you have a diagnosis, the more likely it is that you will be able to get access to a range of beneficial interventions and therapies.
Further benefits also come with having an autism diagnosis. For instance, you may be able to share this diagnosis with your child’s school and teachers, enabling them to get appropriate and effective support more quickly. Likewise, family and friends will be able to have a better understanding of your child’s behaviours and the expectations that can reasonably be placed upon them.
Just as importantly, a child with a diagnosis is likely to have an enhanced sense of self worth as a consequence of having a greater understanding of the characteristics of autism, as well as potentially reducing any sense of isolation they may feel through knowing that they autistic and connecting with potentially a like-minded community.
How to get an autism assessment
An autism assessment needs to be undertaken by a qualified professional, and there are both private and government funded options available.
As assessment can be arranged through a GP or family health nurse, who may conduct an initial screening test and subsequently provide a referral for an autism assessment. You can also make a self-referral to a diagnosing professional if you believe that an assessment is necessary. If you are unsure about who to contact, you can get assistance in arranging an assessment through your state or territory autism association.
A number of professionals may be involved in an autism assessment, as part of a multi-disciplinary team. The professionals who may be involved at various stages of an autism assessment include:
- Medical practitioner
- Nurse practitioner
- Occupational therapist
- Social worker
- Speech pathologist
- Child psychiatrist
Before booking in for an autism assessment, it is best to ask what the requirements to get a diagnosis in your state or territory is as this currently varies across Australia. It may be that you only need one assessment, by an adequately qualified profession, while in other states and territories you will require two assessments or one assessment completed by two different qualified professionals.
The autism assessment process
The assessment will often take into consideration your child’s development in terms of social interaction and communication, as well as whether they have displayed any behaviours associated with autism, e.g., repetitive patterns of behaviour, etc., plus any co-occurring conditions that have previously been diagnosed.
You can expect the professional carrying out the assessment to use a variety of activities, puzzles and games, depending on the individual as a means of observing and understanding your child’s development.
Diagnostic assessment criteria
In Australia, there are two sets of autism spectrum diagnostic criteria that are used.
The most frequently used is the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently in its fifth edition and commonly referred to as DSM-5) which requires that children are assessed both for signs of autism as well as how these might impact on their life. There are two types of autism characteristics categories (referred to as domains) that are assessed — social communication and social interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviours. It will also consider any co-morbid conditions that have previously been diagnosed.
The other diagnostic criteria used in Australia is the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (currently in its 11th edition and referred to as ICD-11). With the ICD-11, health professionals are required to assess the presence and extent of intellectual and language impairment, as well as the impact autism has on different areas of functioning.
In addition, a variety of other screening and diagnostic assessment tools may be used in order to determine whether or not your child meets the recognised autism diagnostic criteria.
How long does an autism assessment take?
The time required for an autism assessment can vary quite significantly, depending on where and when it is being done, and the health professionals who are conducting the assessment. It may be that different practitioners can all assess your child on the same day, or in some cases you may need to make separate appointments in order to see individual specialists.
In either scenario, you will likely receive a written report within a few weeks.
What you can do after receiving an autism diagnosis
Parents and carers generally experience a number of emotions after their child receives an autism diagnosis. These can range from relief to grief, and can bring with them a sense of satisfaction, confusion and fear.
There are some clear benefits to having obtained a diagnosis, the first of which is that you may be able to access a range of support services. The organisation or health professional who undertook the assessment should be able to provide you with guidance as to the range of services you may be able to access. You can also find out more about autism support services here.
Once you begin to explore these support options, you will also begin to understand that you are not alone and that there are thousands of other families in Australia who have had a similar experience. The diagnostic report should provide you with a greater understanding of your child’s behaviours and how you can better meet their specific needs, and be able to share this information with family, friends, schools and other carers.
At the same time, while recognising that autism can present challenges, a diagnosis also gives you the opportunity to identify, appreciate and celebrate your child’s particular strengths and skills.