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Autism is diagnosed by assessing a child’s behaviour with specifically designed tests. From about the 1950s until the late 1980s, a diagnosis of autism was given only to children with severe language and social impairments and unusual repetitious behaviours. But in the 1990s, the autism umbrella expanded, and now includes a group of milder, related conditions.

Autism Spectrum Disorders can usually be reliably diagnosed by age 3. Parents are normally the first to notice unusual behaviours in their child or their child’s failure to reach appropriate developmental milestones. Some parents describe a child that seemed different from birth, while others describe a child who was developing normally and then lost skills such as language.

Diagnosis is best made by specialist paediatricians, child psychiatrists and clinical psychologists experienced in the field of ASDs as they will be aware of the complex presentations of the disorders. A regular paediatrician or family doctor may dismiss parental concerns thinking a child might “catch-up” or take a “wait-and-see” approach. Although parents may have concerns about labeling a toddler as “autistic,” the earlier the diagnosis is made, the sooner the child can access early intervention programs and services. Early intervention is crucial to gain maximum benefit for the child. As soon as autism is diagnosed, early intervention should begin. Effective programs address sensory issues while focusing on developing communication, social and cognitive skills, within a program format that is child-friendly, motivating and fun.

Importantly, the United Nations has expressed deep concern at the prevalence and high rate of autism in children in all regions of the world and the consequent developmental challenges.