How does an autism diagnosis benefit my child?

Parents are usually the first to notice the early signs of autism. You may have noticed that your child was developing differently from their peers. The differences may have existed from birth or may have become more noticeable later. Sometimes the differences are severe and obvious to everyone. In other cases, they are subtle and first recognized by a daycare provider or preschool teacher. Great strides have been made in autism research in recent years, and new findings are being discovered every day. Some of the most brilliant minds of our time have turned their attention toward understanding autism.

There are several reasons why having a diagnosis is useful to you and your child. A thorough and detailed diagnosis can:

  • Provide important information about your child’s behavior and development
  • Give you a reason for the challenges you have faced with parenting
  • Motivate you to learn new ways to help your child grow and develop
  • Help create a roadmap for treatment by identifying your child’s specific strengths and challenges
  • Provide useful information about needs and skills to target for effective intervention
  • Help connect you with local and long-distance resources as your child grows

In addition, a diagnosis is often required to access autism-specific services through early intervention programs or your local school district.

Photo of a smiling girl walking to school with her school bag on, smiling

How is autism diagnosed?

We don’t have a blood test or medical test that can diagnose autism. Instead, autism is diagnosed based on careful observation of your child’s behavior, their history of development and by gathering information from you and other people with whom your child regularly interacts.

As the symptoms of autism vary, so do the routes to getting a diagnosis. You may have raised questions with your pediatrician. A teacher or daycare provider may have spoken to you first about concerns that you may not have recognized yet. Some children are identified as having developmental delays before getting a diagnosis of autism and may already receive some early intervention or special education services.

Unfortunately, parents’ concerns are sometimes not taken seriously by their child’s doctor resulting in a delayed diagnosis. Autism Speaks and other organizations are working hard to educate parents and physicians so that autism in children is identified as early as possible.

An evaluation by health care professionals with varying specialties can be helpful for diagnosing autism and other challenges that often come with autism, such as delays in motor skills. Your child may have been diagnosed by a:

  • Developmental pediatrician: a pediatrician with additional training and expertise in treating children with developmental, learning or behavioral differences
  • Neurologist: a doctor who diagnoses and treats disorders that affect the brain
  • Psychiatrist: a doctor who diagnoses and treats mental, emotional and behavioral disorders
  • Psychologist: a doctor trained to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and mental health problems and evaluate developmental concerns

In some states, other professionals with advanced training in the clinical criteria of autism may provide a diagnosis, such as advanced practice nurses and speech-language pathologists. In some cases, a team of specialists may have evaluated your child and provided recommendations for treatment. The team may have included a(n):

If your child has not been evaluated by a multi-disciplinary team, ask for one to help learn as much as possible about your child’s individual strengths and needs. For more information, visit the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network at autismspeaks.org/atn.

Once your child has a formal diagnosis, ask for a comprehensive report that includes the diagnosis in writing as well as recommendations for treatment. The doctor may not be able to provide this for you at the first appointment as it may take some time to compile. But follow up and pick up the report as soon as it’s ready. Don’t be afraid to ask the doctor to explain the diagnosis and recommendations for next steps. You may have to revisit these recommendations as your child grows older and may need additional supports.