How is Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosed and treated?

An Autism Spectrum disorder diagnosis can be an important tool for parents looking for the programs and services which can help to equip their children with the skills they need.

How is ASD diagnosed?

Children with ASD are usually identified when parents or pediatricians have concerns. Screening tests done at each well-child visit are often an important part of an ASD diagnosis, especially the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (MCHAT) questionnaire that is given at 18 and 24 months old. ASD is a clinical diagnosis, which means that there are no blood tests or imaging studies that can confirm the diagnosis. Instead, the diagnosis and evaluation for ASD includes taking a complete history, and may include physical examination, neurologic examination, and direct assessment of the child’s social, language, and cognitive development.

The steps that go into diagnosis and evaluation vary depending on the professional who is conducting them. For example, MDs are more likely to base diagnosis on physical examination and history. Their evaluations are usually brief. In contrast, a developmental neuropsychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) would do an evaluation that would include gathering a history and direct testing for an objective measure of cognition, language functioning, and social-communication skills, among others.

What do ASD treatments and outcomes look like?

Early identification, intervention, and treatment for ASD focuses on behavioral and educational interventions that target the core symptoms of ASD – that is, communication and interaction problems and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. Specific treatments and therapies are based on each individual child’s age, strengths and weaknesses, and specific needs. The goal of ASD treatments is to provide children with ASD with the tools they can use to work towards greater independence, and to improve their quality of life.

Early Intervention therapies can make a huge difference in communication and behavioral skills. Although there is no cure, symptoms can decrease over time, and in a small minority of children, they can eventually be minimized until they no longer disrupt day-to-day functioning.

For many children with ASD, it’s important that they get education that’s tailored to them, but many children who have milder symptoms and get an early diagnosis and early intervention are eventually able to succeed in mainstream classrooms. On the other hand, many children with ASD benefit from special behavioral and educational programs that provide intensive treatment by trained teachers and specialists. There are also many children who benefit from both mainstream opportunities and specialized instruction.

In addition to regular well-child visit with the pediatrician, children with ASD generally have ongoing follow-up with a specialist or a team of providers who can monitor progress, provide recommendations for behavioral programming, and screen for medical concerns.

During treatment and therapy for ASD, it’s important to remember that while ASD generally continues to have an impact throughout a child’s life, that impact isn’t necessarily going to stay the same. Just like there are a range of different ways that ASD can appear along the spectrum, there are also a wide range of ways children respond to different therapies at different times. As children with ASD grow, their families may try many different types of intervention. No medications exist to address the causes of ASD, but as children grow older, they can sometimes benefit from medications used to help manage some of the symptoms associated with ASD.

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