Autism Spectrum Disorders: Tests and Diagnosis

What tests are used to diagnose autism spectrum disorders?

Children are screened for autism during their "well child" exam with a primary care physician. During the exam, the doctor will ask about your child's social, verbal and emotional development. If your child's primary care provider thinks there may be an issue, you may be referred to a doctor specialized in child development, like those at Children's Hospital Colorado's Child Development Unit for a more in-depth evaluation.

What should you expect from a diagnostic evaluation?

During a diagnostic evaluation for autism spectrum disorders, a child development specialist will interview you and your child, and then observe your child. During the interview, the healthcare professional will ask about your child's history of developmental milestones that are affected in children with autism spectrum disorders.

During the evaluation, your healthcare provider will engage with your child to look for the following:

  • Behavioral observations specifically structured to assess for ASD specific symptoms
  • Psychological evaluation, including measures of developmental and intellectual and adaptive functioning
  • Evaluation for other disorders
  • Speech, language and communication skills
  • Motor skill development

Your child will also be tested to make sure there are not any medical conditions that might be causing autism spectrum-like syndromes. These tests may include: hearing testing, lead poisoning testing and genetic screening.

How do doctors at Children's Hospital Colorado diagnose autism?

Although there are many concerns about labeling a child with an ASD, the earlier the diagnosis is made, the earlier needed interventions can begin. When evaluating a child, clinicians at Children's Colorado rely on behavioral characteristics to make a diagnosis.

Some of the characteristic behaviors of ASD may be apparent in the first few months of a child's life, or they may appear at any time during the early years. For diagnosis, problems in at least one of the areas of communication, socialization or play must be present before the age of three.

The diagnosis requires a two-stage process. The first stage involves developmental screening during "well child" check-ups; the second stage entails a comprehensive evaluation by a multidisciplinary team. As part of this process, children are diagnosed with an ASD based on a specific set of behavioral criteria. We use two specific "gold standard" measures to help to correctly identify autism: Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule.

Read about our autism research and clinical trials.