Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental condition. Despite the internal basis to ASD, it is diagnosed by assessing a child’s behaviour patterns with specifically designed tests and criteria.
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 concept of autism expanded to include those with more verbal skills, such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Delays. The most recent diagnostic criteria has now expanded to Autism Spectrum Disorder, to encompass the full range of abilities and support needs within this diverse group.
Autism Spectrum Disorders can usually be reliably diagnosed by age 3, though this can be older for children with good language skills. 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 developmental paediatricians, child psychiatrists, clinical psychologists or multi-disciplinary diagnostic teams, such as those within Child Development Units. 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 labelling 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. Programs should address sensory issues while focusing on developing communication and 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.