Parents are often the first to notice that something is not right with their child. A child may be unresponsive from birth, cry excessively, not make eye contact, or focus obsessively on an object for a long period of time. Some children who seemed to be developing normally suddenly stop babbling, become indifferent to others, lose imaginative play skills, do not respond to their name, and become uninterested in playing with other children.
In evaluating a child, doctors rely on these behavioral characteristics to make a diagnosis. A well-child checkup should include observational data and a developmental screening. Parents' observations are essential in a proper screening. In addition, several tools are commonly used to screen for autism, including the Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) and the Comprehensive Autism Ratings Scale (CARS). These basic screening tools do not provide a diagnosis, but rather indicate whether a child should be referred for further evaluation.
Usually, a team of specialists is involved in the diagnosis. The team may include a neurologist, psychiatrist, developmental pediatrician, psychologist, gastroenterologist, audiologist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, and other professionals. Because there is no medical test or biomarker for autism, diagnosis is based on observation of the child's behavior, educational and psychological testing, and parent reporting. Usually the team members evaluate the child, assessing his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then explain the test results to parents.
The moment when parents learn that their child is autistic is devastating, even if they suspected something was wrong. Unlike other diseases, autism carries no defined treatment protocol. Unfortunately, all too often parents are on their own and must begin navigating the complex web of treatments, interventions, and therapies to determine which intervention approach might be best for their child. Gaining as much information as possible is critical to becoming an effective advocate for your child.
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