Screening and Diagnosis

Tools for Health Care Providers

Get information on screening and diagnosis especially for health care providers, including:

  • Developmental screening tools
  • Diagnostic tools
  • Screening in the practice setting
  • Recommendations

Screening and Diagnosis for Health Care Providers >>

Diagnosing autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) can be difficult, since there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorders. Doctors look at the child’s behavior and development to make a diagnosis.

ASDs can sometimes be spotted at 18 months of age or younger. By age 2, a diagnosis by an experienced professional can be considered very reliable.1 However, many children do not receive a final diagnosis until they are much older. This delay means that children with ASDs might not get the help they need during a critical period of development.

Diagnosing ASDs takes two steps:

Developmental Screening

Developmental screening is a short test to tell if children are learning basic skills when they should, or if they might have delays. During developmental screening the doctor might ask the parent some questions or talk and play with the child during an exam to see how she learns, speaks, behaves, and moves. A delay in any of these areas could be a sign of a problem.

Photo: Father and child with their healthcare professional

All children should be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during regular well-child doctor visits at:

  • 9 months
  • 18 months
  • 24 or 30 months
  • Additional screening might be needed if a child is at high risk for developmental problems due to preterm birth, low birth weight or other reasons.

In addition, all children should be screened specifically for ASDs during regular well-child doctor visits at:

  • 18 months
  • 24 months
  • Additional screening might be needed if a child is at high risk for an ASD (e.g., having a sister, brother or other family member with an ASD) or if behaviors sometimes associated with ASDs are present.

If your child’s doctor does not routinely check your child with this type of developmental screening test, ask that it be done.

If the doctor sees any signs of a problem, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation is needed.

Learn about developmental milestones for children ages 2 months to 5 years >>

Comprehensive Diagnostic Evaluation

The second step of diagnosis is a comprehensive evaluation. This thorough review may include looking at the child’s behavior and development and interviewing the parents. It may also include a hearing and vision screening, genetic testing, neurological testing, and other medical testing.

Early Intervention Services

Research shows that early intervention treatment services can improve a child’s development 2, 3. Early intervention services help children from birth to 3 years old (36 months) learn important skills. Services include therapy to help the child talk, walk, and interact with others. Therefore, it is important to talk to your child’s doctor as soon as possible if you think your child has an ASD or other developmental problem.

It is not necessary for your child to have a diagnosis to get early intervention services. Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an ASD, he or she may be eligible for early intervention treatment services. In addition, to access treatment for particular symptoms, such as speech therapy for language delays, you do not need to wait for a formal autism diagnosis. Early interventions services are provided free or at reduced cost in every state. While early intervention is extremely important, intervention at any age can be helpful.

Learn more about early intervention »External Web Site Icon

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