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Autism: Assessment

Screening

  • 0-4 years (Pre school children): If your child is pre school age, your health visitor or GP may carry out a ‘screening interview’ called M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers). This is just a screening tool and will not give you a diagnosis, but it is a way of indicating whether your child may be autistic.

  • 5-16 years (School aged children): It can be useful to meet with the school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) or Learning Support Teacher to discuss any concerns you have. Your child’s teacher may have also identified behaviours and characteristics and will be able to offer support in pursuing a diagnosis for your child.

How do I get an assessment for a diagnosis of autism?

Autism varies widely from person to person so getting a diagnosis can be difficult. Currently there is not a medical test to diagnose autism so a diagnosis is best made by a healthcare professional or team who specialise in diagnosing autism.

How to get an assessment for autism will depend on the age of your child, the reason(s) for a referral and which service your child has been referred to. For example, if your child has difficulties with language then a Speech and Language Therapist may make the referral; if your child has mental health problems, then CAMHS may refer them for an assessment and if your child has dyspraxia or has an eating disorder, an Occupational Therapist may make the referral. These different routes to getting a referral mean that the assessments will be different. For example, some individuals will have a multidisciplinary assessment, some will be diagnosed by a psychologist or psychiatrist within the mental health service and some will have a diagnosis by a paediatrician with the input from an educational/clinical psychologist.

If you are seeking an autism diagnosis for your child, it is recommended that you follow these steps:

Step 1: Speak to your GP

See your GP or health visitor if your child is showing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or you're worried about their development. If necessary, make an appointment without your child first so you can discuss concerns openly.

Step 2: Gather evidence

You will be asked why you are seeking a referral for an autism assessment, so you will need evidence of why you think your child might be autistic. You could do this by keeping notes on issues such as behaviour, signs of anxiety or social responses.

Step 3: Getting a referral   

If appropriate, your GP will refer you to a healthcare professional or team who specialise in diagnosing ASD. Sometimes you will be referred to a multidisciplinary team for an assessment. If you're referred to an individual specialist, they may be a:

  • psychologist – a healthcare professional with a psychology degree, plus further training and qualifications in psychology
  • psychiatrist – a medically qualified doctor with further training in psychiatry
  • paediatrician – a doctor who specialises in treating children
  • speech and language therapist – a specialist in recognising and treating communication problems

The specialist or specialist team will make a more in-depth assessment, which should be started within three months of the referral.

Step 4: The diagnostic assessment

The National Autism Plan for Children (NAPC) says that an assessment should include:

  • reports from all settings (eg school/nursery)
  • an autism-specific developmental and family history
  • observations in more than one setting
  • cognitive, communication, behavioural and mental health assessments
  • an assessment of the needs and strengths of all family members
  • a full physical examination
  • tests/assessments for other conditions where appropriate.

If your child has a multidisciplinary assessment, the professionals will assess your child separately and their findings are then brought together by the team leader to inform the diagnosis. This may mean you need to go for several appointments.

Once all of the assessments have been carried out, you will be told whether or not the professionals think your child is autistic. They might do this on the day of the assessment, by phone on a later date, or in a written report that they send to you in the post.

Step 5: Coming to terms with the diagnosis

After a diagnosis, most individuals and parents are keen to find out as much information as possible. In our Autism: Post Diagnosis Information Pack, you will find more information about autism and services available to help you answer the ‘what next?’ questions.

If you are told your child is not autistic, or they are given a diagnosis you don't agree with, you can seek a second opinion. This will require either going back to the GP to explain that you aren't happy with the diagnosis and to ask them to refer your child elsewhere, or paying for a private assessment.


Information from: NHS, National Autistic Society, NAS Surrey Branch, NAPC