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A Parent’s Guide to Their Child’s Autism Screening and Evaluation

Navigating the journey of your child’s development can be filled with joy, wonder and, at times, worries. It’s natural to have concerns and questions about your child’s milestones, behaviors and overall well-being. 

Knowing when to speak up and who to turn to for support can be stressful, especially when faced with the possibility your child has a condition like autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 36 children are diagnosed with autism. While it may seem overwhelming, there is a process in place to receive a proper diagnosis. 

You aren’t alone on this journey. Your concerns are valid, and seeking answers and support is a proactive step toward understanding and supporting your child’s unique needs.

Read on to learn more about ASD, how to assess and diagnose the condition and get your child the support they deserve. 

Understanding autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a condition that affects the way a person communicates, interacts with others and experiences the world around them. A child with ASD may have difficulty with social skills, such as making eye contact or understanding social cues. They may also have specific interests or repetitive behaviors.

“The signs and symptoms of autism can vary from child to child,” said Helene Felman, MD, a pediatrician with Banner Children’s. “Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means a child can exhibit a range of symptoms and levels of severity.”

Some people with ASD may have mild symptoms and be able to function well in society, while others may have more significant challenges that require more support. Symptoms can also overlap with other conditions, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sensory processing disorder and anxiety disorders

Importance of early diagnosis

Autism is a lifelong condition. Early diagnosis and interventions are key to providing support and resources to help your child reach their full potential. 

“Early interventions can help your child develop important skills and overcome challenges, which may lead to improved long-term outcomes,” Dr. Felman said. 

Additionally, diagnosis opens up access to resources and support systems tailored to your child and family. 

Steps to diagnosis and treatment

The process of diagnosing ASD typically involves multiple steps and professionals. Here’s what you can expect:

Step one: Ask for a referral

The first step in seeking an autism diagnosis involves recognizing the early signs and symptoms. If you notice your child is not meeting developmental milestones, talk with their health care provider about your concerns and ask for a comprehensive development evaluation (CDE) referral. 

“If your child’s pediatrician believes your child is at risk for autism, they will typically refer you to a developmental pediatrician or an advanced practice practitioner who has special training in this area,” Dr. Felman said. 

A CDE may also include other qualified specialists, such as:

  • Neurologists (pediatric and adult)
  • Psychiatrists (pediatric and adult)
  • Pediatric psychologists with autism training and experience

These specialists conduct thorough evaluations, considering many aspects of development, behavior and communication.

Step two: The autism evaluation

The diagnostic assessment and evaluation usually take place in an office setting and may take one or two sessions to complete. The average time it takes to do the evaluation can vary depending on your child’s age and skill. 

The process involves gathering information through interviews, questionnaires and direct observations with your child. In young children, most of the information is gathered from parents and caregivers. However, if your child is school-aged and receives care from teachers, that information may also be considered.

“How a child engages with their world and the people within it affects whether they meet criteria for the diagnosis or not, so getting a thorough history of how the child interacts with those around them is really important,” Dr. Felman said. 

There are several screening tools used to screen and diagnose autism. These can range from simple observations and questionnaires to diagnostic assessments. Some tools used for screening and diagnosis include:

  • Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT)
  • The Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ)
  • Parents’ Evaluation of Developmental Status-Revised (PEDS)
  • Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children (STAT)
  • Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS)
  • Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS)
  • Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI)
Step three: Getting an autism diagnosis

After your child completes the assessment, the evaluator or specialist will talk to you about the results. You should receive a comprehensive report that outlines your child’s developmental history, test results, diagnostic impressions and recommendations for services.

Reaching the stage of receiving a diagnosis of autism can be a huge milestone in understanding and supporting your child. Understanding your child’s struggles are a result of a neurodevelopmental condition like autism can help with feelings of guilt or self-blame and foster empathy and acceptance.

However, it is still normal to experience a range of emotions and feelings – from sadness and anger to disbelief.

It’s important to remember that receiving a diagnosis doesn’t define your child or their potential. Instead, it’s a roadmap for accessing appropriate interventions and support. Communicate openly with your child’s health care provider and seek clarifications on any concerns, worries or uncertainties you may have. 

Step four: Beginning a path for progress

Receiving a diagnosis of autism is the start of a bright new chapter for your child.

“Getting a formal diagnosis is important because it helps you better understand your child’s needs and helps them access resources and possible interventions,” Dr. Felman said. “The gold standard therapies include speech therapy, occupational therapy, DIR/Floortime, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), TEACCH and social skills training.”

It’s important to work with your child’s health care team, therapists and educators to create an individualized plan tailored to your child’s needs and requirements. Your child may be eligible for early intervention programs, school-based services and community resources.

In addition to professional support, there are several support groups, community organizations and other parents who can provide emotional support, guidance and experience. 

Remember to take care of yourself along the way, as navigating the challenges of raising a child with autism can be emotionally tiring. Surround yourself with a supportive network of family, friends and professionals who can offer guidance and encouragement. 

Celebrate your child’s achievements, no matter how small, and embrace their unique strengths and abilities. As a parent, your love and support are invaluable to your child’s development.


Diagnosing autism can be challenging and overwhelming, but it’s also the beginning of a journey filled with opportunities for growth and learning. Early diagnosis is important as it allows for early interventions and access to appropriate therapies and support services.

Above all, trust your instincts as a parent and advocate for your child’s needs. With early intervention, understanding and support, your child can reach their full potential and thrive in their own unique way.

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s development, talk to their health care provider or a Banner Health specialist.

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