According to the Autism Society of America (ASA), "autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a 'spectrum disorder' that affects individuals differently and to varying degrees."
So, not only is there no concise definition of this disorder, there are no hard and fast rules governing the manifestation of the disorder, but there are screening processes that can help parents help their health care practitioners get an earlier diagnoses and earlier treatment. What, then, are the ways in which children are tested for, and diagnosed with, autism?
Screening and Observation
While there is no medical test for detecting autism, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that autism spectrum disorders can be detected as early as 18 months of age; signs of autism generally manifest themselves when children are under age three.
Autism is treatable, and, like other disorder, early detection is key to obtaining timely and effective treatment. The ASA offers several signs to look for in children, including "lack of or delay in spoken language; repetitive use of language and/or motor mannerisms (e.g., hand-flapping, twirling objects); little or no eye contact; lack of interest in peer relationships; lack of spontaneous or make-believe play; and persistent fixation on parts of objects."
The first place to start is with your child's regular visits to the pediatrician. Screening can "help identify children who might have developmental delays," according to the CDC. Screening cannot, however, "give sure evidence of developmental delays, and . . . cannot be used to make a diagnosis." Developmental screening during a regular check up will determine if a child needs more intensive evaluation in the form of developmental surveillance.
Developmental surveillance consists of observing a child and accurately recording observations regarding his development. More information about developmental surveillance is available here.
Screening for high-functioning autism or Asperger's syndrome can be performed on school-aged children; these disabilities are often present in the absence of language delays.
Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation
The next step is for a child to undergo a diagnostic evaluation to determine if he has autism. This may consist of a comprehensive developmental history, parent interviews, psychological evaluations, speech and language evaluation, and possibly genetic, physical, and neurological testing. The CDC cautions that, because of the complexity of autism, "no single tool should be used as the only basis for diagnosing autism." Diagnostic tools rely on direct observation of a child as well as information reported by a parent or caregiver.
What Parents Should Do
Parents should know the developmental milestones appropriate to their child's age. The CDC's "Learn the Sign. Act Early" site offers a concise overview of what a child should be doing at ages three months through five years.
If you suspect your child has a developmental delay, discuss that with your pediatrician. He or she may refer you to - or you should ask for a referral to - a developmental specialist. Knowledge is power, so be sure to consult the CDC and ASA websites for more information.
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