When Should I Seek an Autism Screening for My Child?

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An autism screening is, essentially, a "lite" version of a full evaluation for signs of autism. A full evaluation can take several hours over multiple days, and usually involves at least two or three autism experts including a developmental pediatrician, speech therapist, and occupational therapist. A screening is a much less thorough process. Its purpose is to determine whether a full evaluation is appropriate.

There are several ways that practitioners screen for autism:

  • Your pediatrician may ask you about your child's development and look for signs that your child may not be hitting developmental milestones.
  • A therapist or autism practitioner (doctor, social worker, psychologist, etc.) may administer the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (CHAT-R), an interview-based tool that includes a range of questions about your child's development, behaviors, and challenges.
  • A psychologist or other practitioner hired by your child's school or preschool may observe your child in the school setting with an eye to noticing specific types of behaviors or developmental challenges that could suggest autism.

Even if the results of a screening suggest that an evaluation would be a good idea, your child may not be autistic. In quite a few cases behaviors that could indicate autism turn out to be indicators of other issues ranging from hearing loss to ADHD.

When to Seek an Autism Screening 

Today, because of increasing awareness of autism and its prevalence, many pediatricians screen every child for autism. You may also hear from your child's preschool that they are screening for developmental issues.  For many parents, the first mention of a problem comes not from "official" sources but from grandparents or older siblings who see unusual behaviors you may have missed.

Assuming that your practitioner does NOT screen for autism when you should consider a screening?

It's a good idea to consider a screening if you notice delayed speech, lack of eye contact, non-response when you call your child's name, difficulty with bright lights or loud noises, unusual behaviors (lining up toys, flapping hands, odd non-functional movements).  Any of these could be signs of some kind of developmental challenge — but if you see several of them together, there's a good chance you're looking at early signs of autism.

If you do see such signs, there is no good reason to wait. It can't possibly hurt your child to be screened for autism. If you have concerns and they're legitimate, you've done your child and yourself a great service. If your child is not autistic but does have other challenges, you've caught them early. And if it turns out he's just fine, there's no harm done. If autism (or another developmental disorder) is discovered, you'll now be able to address the issue through therapies, many of which will be paid for by a combination of early intervention, school district programs, and health insurance.

How to Seek an Autism Screening

Your first step should be to consult with your own pediatrician. It's important to note that most pediatricians have little experience with autism, and there is no simple medical test to check for the disorder. Because of this, you may hear from your pediatrician that you're worrying too much, that all kids develop at a different rate, and that he's doing fine. Your pediatrician may be absolutely correct, but it's always possible that he or she is mistaken.

If you still have concerns, ask him/her for a referral to a local clinic, hospital program or ​developmental pediatrician or neurologist who has significant experience in diagnosing developmental disorders. Also be sure to find out whether there is an early intervention program in your state that offers a multi-disciplinary evaluation free of charge. This self-test can also help you decide whether to seek a screening for your child.

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