I Think My Child May Have Autism
If your child is showing signs or symptoms of autism, it is important to have them screened. The sooner your child is diagnosed, the sooner they can receive needed services that will improve their outcome and quality of life.
This article will give you information about the screening and assessment processes, including:
- How to prepare for your appointment(s)
- What to do during your appointment(s)
- Answers to frequently asked questions, such as what to do if you are told to “wait and see”
Screening vs. Assessment
Developmental screenings are brief, informal evaluations to identify children who are at risk for developmental delays and need further evaluation. Doctors, nurses, or other professionals in healthcare, community, or school settings can perform developmental screenings.
During the screening process, your child will be given a brief test and you'll be asked to complete a questionnaire. The results will help determine if your child needs to be referred for further evaluation.
If areas of concern are identified in the screening process, an in-depth, formal developmental assessment is needed. Developmental assessments need to be conducted by a trained specialist or a team of trained specialists (developmental pediatricians, child psychologists, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, etc.).
Many specialists have wait lists, so you will want to call and schedule an appointment for a developmental assessment immediately following your referral.
How to Get an Appointment for a Screening and/or Assessment
There are a number of ways to get the evaluation process started. One way is through your child’s pediatrician. Another way is through your state’s Early Childhood Intervention Program (ECI).
Your Child’s Pediatrician
Contact your child’s pediatrician, tell them you are concerned about your child’s development, and request a developmental screening for your child.
If your child’s pediatrician identifies areas of concern during the screening process, they should refer you to a trained specialist (developmental pediatrician, child neurologist, child psychiatrist, or child psychologist) for further evaluation in an autism assessment.
Your State’s Early Childhood Intervention Program (ECI)
Another option is contacting your state’s Early Childhood Intervention Program (ECI) to have your child screened and evaluated for autism. Screenings and evaluations through ECI are almost always free of charge.
Your child’s age will determine how you go about scheduling an appointment to have your child screened and assessed through ECI.
- Children Under 3:
- Find your state’s ECI contact information here
- Children Over 3
- Contact your local public elementary school to receive ECI services through them
Before Your Appointment
Preparing for your appointment paves the way for effective advocacy for your child and helps ensure they receive a thorough evaluation. You can prepare for your appointment by:
- Compiling a list of questions and concerns to discuss with your doctor or the person who will be evaluating your child
- Collect video data of your child doing any concerning behaviors that you feel your child may not engage in during an assessment
- Completing a milestones checklist. Some free options include:
- The CDC’s "Learn the Signs. Act Early.” website has printable and digital trackers
- Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT)
- Autism Treatment Evaluation Checklist (ATEC)
- Complete any surveys or questionnaires given to you by your child’s doctor or ECI office
- Be sure to do this 3-5 days before your appointment to allow for ample time for completion
- Call your insurance company to discuss coverage and any out-of-pocket expenses that you might incur
- Screenings and assessments through state’s ECI program should be free of charge (see above)
During Your Appointment
During the screening and assessment processes, your child may be asked to perform some simple tests that may look like play. As the parent, you will be asked questions about your child’s development and behaviors.
Go over your completed milestone checklists and/or M-CHAT with your doctor. Point out all of the missed or delayed milestones. Do not be embarrassed to accurately describe concerns and issues. Do not “sugar coat” or downplay any delays. Minimizing or downplaying answers will not help your child in the long run. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Your input is invaluable throughout this process!
Remember, screenings are brief, informal, and may look like a well-child visit. However, their informal nature doesn’t excuse the person conducting the screening from taking this process seriously. Your concerns should never be dismissed. If the person screening your child tells you to “wait and see” or suggests this a “just a stage” your child will grow out of, go and get a second opinion! Always listen to your intuition.
Developmental assessments, are more comprehensive and in-depth than screenings. Assessments can take a long time to complete, so they may be broken up into several appointments. They might also be conducted by several different specialists who are trained in specific areas (speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, child psychologist, etc.).
In order to ensure your child receives a comprehensive assessment, your child should be observed in a number of different settings to obtain an understanding of how they behave in various environments. Depending on your child’s comfort level, you may be asked to be in the room with your child, view the from an observation room, or remain in the waiting room.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I get an autism diagnosis from my pediatrician?
No. Determining whether or not a person has autism involves a complex, comprehensive evaluation process. A reliable diagnosis can only be obtained through trained individual(s) who have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the behavioral traits and diagnostic criteria for autism.
Won’t someone just tell me if there is a problem?
Not likely. Despite decades of awareness campaigns, research conducted by the CDC indicates that most children are still diagnosed after the age of 4 even though they can be reliably diagnosed by age 2.
Can the school system diagnose my child?
Not necessarily. Autism can only be diagnosed by licensed medical professional, such as a developmental pediatrician, neurologist, psychiatrist, or psychologist. School district “school psychologists” are very rarely licensed psychologists, thus they are not qualified to diagnose autism. District evaluations are intended to determine the likelihood that a child has an autism spectrum disorder and/or the child’s IEP eligibility category. This is referred to as an educational diagnosis. You will want a medical diagnosis, independent of the school, that isn’t based on educational criteria or available school programs. Whether or not you give the medical diagnosis to the school is purely your choice.
Is there anything I can do to get in for an assessment more quickly?
Many recommended specialists have wait lists. Sometimes the waiting can be many months long. When scheduling your appointment, ask to be put on a cancellation list so you can get in sooner if there is a cancellation. Complete and submit all required paperwork as soon as possible. Specialists appreciate motivated and prepared families who follow up and send in paperwork well before their scheduled appointment.
You may also want to consider setting up an appointment with a different provider who can assess your child at an earlier date.
What should I do if my doctor dismisses my concerns?
If your child’s doctor has told you to “wait and see,” but you feel uneasy about that advice: GO AND GET A SECOND OPINION. “Wait and see” is an outdated and ineffective approach. The sooner your child is diagnosed, the sooner they can receive needed services that will improve their outcome and quality of life. Early intervention changes lives!
- Signs and Symptoms of Autism (in both English and Spanish)
- How to contact your state’s Early Childhood Intervention Program
- Additional information and tools (in both English and Spanish) to help guide parents through the diagnostic process can be found on the CDC's website
*All content in this article is informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have.