Autism Diagnosis:

The Best Autism Schools in Utah for Your Child

The Process of Autism Diagnosis Made Simple

Getting an autism diagnosis can be a confusing and overwhelming process for many families. At, our goal is to simplify the steps involved and provide you with the information you need to understand how professionals make an autism diagnosis. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a group of complex neurological and developmental disorders that affect a person’s ability to communicate, interact socially, and exhibit restrictive or repetitive behaviors. Autism affects each individual differently and to varying degrees. That’s why it is called a “spectrum” disorder.

The Diagnostic Process

Autism diagnosis is based on direct observations of the child’s communication, behavior, and development. Trained professionals such as pediatricians, psychiatrists, psychologists, and physicians must be involved in making an accurate ASD diagnosis. There is no single medical test that can diagnose autism. Instead, clinicians use specialized diagnostic tests, interviews with parents and caregivers, and the child’s developmental history to determine if they meet the criteria for an ASD diagnosis.

The diagnostic process typically involves:

  • Developmental screening – The first step is usually a short screening test a pediatrician gives during a routine well-child visit. This helps determine if the child is reaching basic milestones or if there are any early red flags.
  • Comprehensive diagnostic evaluation – If the screening indicates concerns, the next step is an in-depth assessment often performed by a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist, or team of specialists.
  • Use of autism diagnostic tools – Several structured tests and scales are used to evaluate autism symptoms and make a diagnosis.
  • Interviews with parents – Information from parents about the child’s early development and current behaviors is a crucial part of the process.
  • Ruling out other conditions – Diagnosticians will ensure the behaviors are not better explained by another disorder like hearing loss, intellectual disability, or lack of adequate instruction.
  • Making the diagnosis – The clinician will synthesize data from the evaluation tools, interviews, and expert judgment to determine if the child meets the criteria for an ASD diagnosis.

Common Diagnostic Tools

Some of the most widely used autism screening and diagnostic tools include:

  • M-CHAT – The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers is a standard screening tool pediatricians use for children 16-30 months old. It is a parent questionnaire designed to spot early signs of autism.
  • ADOS – The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule is a series of structured and semi-structured tasks and questions to observe social and communication behaviors associated with autism. A trained professional conducts it.
  • ADI-R – The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised is an extensive, structured interview conducted with parents or caretakers by a clinician to gather comprehensive information about the child’s developmental history and behaviors.
  • CARS – The Childhood Autism Rating Scale allows clinicians to identify children with autism and evaluate symptom severity based on direct observation.
  • ASD Diagnostic Criteria – The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) provides standardized criteria for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder. Clinicians use detailed criteria to guide their diagnosis.

Understanding the Types of Autism

Autism spectrum disorder encompasses different types of autism that fit under the more extensive umbrella term. These include:

  • Autistic Disorder (Classical Autism) – This refers to the most commonly recognized type of autism. Children typically show significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and restricted behaviors and interests before age 3.
  • Asperger Syndrome – Individuals with Asperger syndrome usually have milder symptoms, average or above-average intelligence, and less impairment in language development.
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) – This subtype is diagnosed when a child meets some criteria for autism but not in all areas. The symptoms are fewer and milder.
  • Rett Syndrome – This rare genetic condition occurs almost exclusively in girls. Children typically develop for six months and then regress, losing previously learned skills.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder – CDD is marked by significant regression in language, social, and motor skills after two to four years of typical development.

Understanding these subtypes can help families better comprehend how autism symptoms manifest differently and access suitable support. Our Types of Autism page provides detailed information on each of these types.

Importance of Early Diagnosis

There are several key reasons why early diagnosis and intervention for autism are so vital:

  • Allows access to autism therapies at a young age when they are often most effective. Research shows starting treatment before three years old leads to the best long-term outcomes.
  • It allows the child to enroll in an early intervention program to facilitate later development and lessen difficulties.
  • Families can learn about autism, connect with resources, and get needed support.
  • Reduces frustrations for the child by ensuring parents and caregivers better understand the child’s needs and behaviors.
  • Allows the child to access special education services and tailored support in school.
  • Opens doors to autism-specific services and programs.
  • Enables earlier screening and intervention for any co-occurring medical issues.

While autism can be reliably diagnosed as young as 18-24 months, the average age of diagnosis is around four years old. Some milder cases are not diagnosed until a child is school-age. Early screening and diagnosis allow children on the spectrum the best possible chance to reach their full potential.

Signs to Look Out For

Many parents notice differences in their child’s development or behavior between 12-24 months. While every child with ASD is unique, some common red flags include:

  • Lack of babbling, pointing, or gesturing by 12 months
  • Limited or no eye contact 
  • Very few or no spoken words by 16 months 
  • Not responding to their name by 12 months
  • Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling, or social skills
  • Repetitive movements like flapping hands, rocking or spinning.
  • Intense focus or attachment to unusual objects 
  • Over- or under-sensitivity to sounds, textures, tastes, or smells
  • Significant challenges with pretend play 
  • Difficulty understanding or expressing emotions
  • Persistent fixation on parts of objects rather than using objects as intended

Bring up any concerns with your pediatrician and request an autism screening if you notice signs of atypical development by 18 months old. Early intervention can make a world of difference.

Diagnostic Criteria and the DSM-5

Clinicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), currently in its fifth edition, as a guide for evaluating and diagnosing autism. The DSM-5 has specific diagnostic criteria required to diagnose autism spectrum disorder accurately. 

To receive an ASD diagnosis, a child must meet criteria in two main categories: 

1. Persistent Impairment in Social Communication and Interaction 

This involves deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and developing and maintaining relationships, such as not participating in make-believe play or engaging in one-sided conversations.

2. Restricted, Repetitive Behaviors, Activities, or Interests

This includes stereotyped motor or verbal behaviors like hand flapping or echolalia. Excessive adherence to routines and highly restricted interests are also common.

In addition, symptoms must be present early in childhood and impair everyday functioning. Clinicians will rule out other explanations and ensure an intellectual disability or global developmental delay does not better explain the behaviors.

Using these guidelines ensures ASD diagnoses are consistent and accurate across clinical settings. However, no two children with autism are alike. The evaluation process depends heavily on direct observations, interviews, and the clinician’s judgment. 

Seeking Ongoing Support

Getting an autism diagnosis is often the first step to accessing essential support services and resources. Here are some tips for parents after receiving their child’s diagnosis:

  • Learn about your legal rights and eligibility for services under federal and state laws. Two fundamental laws are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Connect with your local Early Intervention agency if your child is under three. Request an evaluation for EI services. 
  • Meet with your school district to set up an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and services if your child is three and older.
  • Look into vocational rehabilitation services, Social Security benefits, Medicaid coverage, and residential/housing services for support in adulthood.
  • Find an autism support group to connect with other local families. 
  • Identify accessible and affordable treatment options like applied behavior analysis (ABA), speech therapy, and occupational therapy. 
  • Take advantage of autism resources and programs right in your community.

Remember, you are not alone on this journey as a family. aims to provide a helpful online resource for understanding autism, navigating your options, and connecting with a supportive community. Please explore our website to continue learning more about autism spectrum disorder.