Parents ask: What should we look for in an autism evaluation?

Haga clic aquí para acceder este en español.

It’s important to obtain an evaluation by healthcare professionals who are experienced in identifying autism spectrum disorder (ASD) across a range of ages and symptom severity. As with any healthcare issue, you want experience. Ideally, find someone who has evaluated hundreds of individuals, not just a few here and there.

The diagnostic challenge

Diagnosing ASD is challenging which is why it is important to find a professional to conduct the evaluation who has expertise and experience. Specifically, there’s no blood test or other simple medical test for making the diagnosis. Nor is there any one behavior or other characteristic that indicates autism. Rather, experienced professionals look for a broad but specific group of symptoms. This requires direct observation combined with an expert examination and assessment as well as reports from parents, teachers or other caregivers.

In addition, autism signs and symptoms exist across a spectrum. They must be differentiated from similar signs and symptoms associated with other developmental disorders. Often, the crucial difference is in the degree that certain signs and symptoms are present.

Making a diagnosis can be especially challenging when it involves individuals on either end of the autism spectrum: those with broad developmental problems and those who are highly functioning despite having autism-related challenges.

Selecting a diagnostic team

Qualified and experienced providers can be found in a number of medical and mental health fields. If you’re seeking an evaluation, you want a provider who understands typical development, developmental disorders, as well as specific autism symptoms.

At specialized autism centers such as those in the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network, a diagnostic team evaluates each child.

Find the Autism Speaks Autism Care Network center nearest you. Or, search for other diagnostic centers using the Autism Speaks Resource Guide.

Ideally, the team should include a medical specialist such as a developmental pediatrician, psychiatrist or neurologist. In addition, it should include a psychologist with expertise in diagnosing autism, a speech-language pathologist and possibly an occupational therapist.

Here is what you can expect:

  • The physician’s exam should focus on possible medical and/or genetic issues associated with your child’s symptoms.
  • The psychologist administers developmental and cognitive tests.
  • The speech-language pathologist evaluates communication and social skills.
  • The occupational therapist can further evaluate sensory and motor issues.

Following the diagnostic evaluation, the team should provide the family with comprehensive feedback, including a written report that fully explains all test results. This feedback session and report should be presented in understandable language.

If there’s anything you don’t understand, you should feel comfortable asking for explanations. It’s vital that you come away with an understanding of the entire diagnostic process. With this information, you will be positioned to obtain the necessary services and interventions for your child.

When a diagnostic team isn’t available

Unfortunately, autism clinics with highly trained diagnostic teams aren’t available in every community. You may need to consult with your primary care physician for a recommendation in your area. As part of its mission, the Autism Care Network is working to share best practices for autism diagnosis and care with doctors and other healthcare providers across North America.

As mentioned, you can also search for local diagnostic services through the Autism Speaks Resource Guide. If you’d like personal help, reach out to Autism Speaks Autism Response Team.

While you’re waiting

Download Autism Speaks First Concern to Action Tool Kit. Also see, Five things to do while waiting for an autism evaluation.

Beyond the evaluation: Next steps

Your feedback session and written report should not stop with your child’s diagnosis. It should also lay out the next steps in your journey. If your child receives an ASD diagnosis, for example, the report should include comprehensive recommendations for the therapists and/or teachers who will be a part of the intervention program.

You should also check out our 100 Day Kit for Newly Diagnosed Families of Young Children or 100 Day Kit for Newly Diagnosed Families of School Age Children.