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Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Childs legs holding a toy on a wooden floor for blog about Autism

What does a Psychologist look for when Identifying and diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder, what does a Psychologist look for? Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to a group of neurodevelopment disorders with two core challenges. Problems with social communication and a pattern of restricted and repetitive behaviours.

As the name suggests, children can experience challenges on a spectrum of severity. This negatively affects their ability to participate fully in community and socially with others.

Problems occur with recognising and understanding their emotions and the emotions of others or taking what others say too literally. Other more significant challenges may impact their ability to form lasting relationships and live independently.

Behaviours  such as aggression and withdrawal. Symptoms may manifest differently, based on things like language ability, age, and cognitive ability. These differences happen for a variety of reasons and it is not always easy to pick up.

Family is vital for the early identification of symptoms and referral to appropriate services (such as Occupational Therapists and Speech Pathologists). Early recognition of Autism ensures that children receive evidence-based interventions which can improve their quality of life.

Once symptoms are recognised and concerns are raised, it is important to allow for assessment and diagnosis by qualified allied health professionals. Talk to us about Autism Assessments.

So the big question is what should you look out for?

Familial history of neurological disorders or genetic syndromes

In the clinic, when we see a concerned parent who thinks their son or daughter might be different to other kids they hang around with, we start by having a long conversation. We talk about their family and developmental history. We tend to see that when there is someone else in the family that has/had problems with learning or has an existing diagnosis. Have a conversation with your family and don’t forget to ask about cousins and nieces;

  1. Do I have a family member who has a formal diagnosis?

  2. Did my parents ever have concerns that myself or my siblings were taking longer than other children to learn new skills, such as speaking or walking?

  3. Do we have an uncle or aunt who might also be different in the ways that my child is different; had trouble making conversations and took things very literally?

Delayed Developmental Milestones

Every individual is unique, and this also applies to their physical and emotional development. However, it is important to recognise that as humans we have “developmental trajectories”; most people will have similar (but not the same) timelines for when they will generally learn certain skills.

Such as when we learn to and begin to babble, walk, talk, toilet train, play and interact with others.

It is important to be familiar with age-appropriate milestones and to keep track of your child’s progress. This can sound like a challenging task however there are many apps available to make the process much easier to monitor.

  1. CDC’s Milestone Tracker App, available on Apple’s App store or Google play for Android (Free)

  2. Pathfinder Health Baby Tracker (Free)

  3. Glow (Free)

  4. Baby Tracker – newborn log (Free)

  5. Growth: baby and child charts (Free)

Not responding to their name or making eye contact

When we think back to those developmental milestones mentioned earlier, we can anticipate that typically developing children will learn to respond to their name at an early age (between 8 to 10 months). Responding to our name and interactions with people who want our attention is an interpersonal communication skill. 

This appears to be more difficult for children on the spectrum to learn. If your child is not responding to their name (this can include orienting their head towards you or making eye contact), this may be indicative that they are on the spectrum.

If you find that your child is still not consistently responding to their name by 12 months of age, consult with your GP or Paediatrician with your concerns and they can provide advice or administer screening assessments to see whether further assessment is warranted.

Intense interest in sensory activities

It is common for individuals on the spectrum to process information differently to their typically developing peers, this can include what we call “sensory information” such as lights, tastes, smells and the feeling of certain fabrics or texture. Typically developing children will tend to ‘habituate’ to sensory experiences; this means that they become ‘use to’ a once annoying or uncomfortable sensory experience.

From our experience in the clinic, children on the spectrum have difficulty habituating to sensory experiences and appear to process sensory information much more intensely than their peers. If your child appears to become fixated on the way certain objects look, feel, smell, sound or move (or conversely, become extremely distressed at these experiences after repeated exposure) it may be worth discussing these concerns with your General Practitioner or Paediatrician.

Repeating noises, words, or sentences of others

As previously mentioned, Autism Spectrum Disorder can have a significant, negative impact on the ability for children to learn to speak to others; specifically, they find it difficult to produce spontaneous language. Referred to as “Echolalia”, this is a natural process for comprehending and learning language, it may be a sign that something is off if this continues to occur beyond the toddler years.

For example, a parent might ask their child “Do you want to play with the frog?” and the child may immediately respond with “Play with the frog”, instead of saying “Yes”. The child has echoed what the parent said. This can occur for several reasons, and if this continues to occur when your child is older than three, it will be important to schedule an appointment with your General Practitioner or Paediatrician and let them know.


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