Comprehensive autism assessments are used to diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is important that a qualified professional, such as a psychologist, conduct the autism assessment. An accurate diagnosis requires a careful evaluation by an expert. Many professionals who work with children on the autism spectrum aren’t qualified to make a diagnosis of autism. Importantly, many of these professionals, such as Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs), do possess the training and skills to work with individuals on the autism spectrum, actually diagnosing autism is not part of their training.
I am the director of the ApaCenter (Austin Psychology & Assessment Center). We are a group of psychologists and other practitioners who provide psychological and neuropsychological assessments, therapy, consultation, and coaching to clients of all ages. Most of our psychologists are also Licensed Specialists in School Psychology (LSSPs). This license requires specialized training that allows us to practice psychology in the schools. So, we understand special education and 504 services, special education laws, and what services and accommodations are most helpful for kids who have special needs.
At the ApaCenter, we have a number of psychologists who have received extensive training in working kids on the autism spectrum, including autism assessments.
Diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
Although there is no single standardized test that can diagnose an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a number of autism rating scales and structured interviews now exist that are helpful in determining the likelihood of such disorders. While assessments look for the main characteristics of an autism spectrum disorder (social impairment, communication difficulties, reliance on repetitive routines/ narrowness of interests), a comprehensive evaluation will assess the following areas of functioning through a combination of individualized standardized testing, self-report measures, behavioral checklists, interviews, and observations:
- Developmental and medical history
- Cognitive abilities and academic achievement
- Social competence and social perception
- Emotional and behavioral functioning
- Communication and language skills
- Perceptual-motor/visual-spatial ability
- Assessment of attention and memory as indicated
The ApaCenter may also recommend a full medical evaluation to rule out other medical conditions that may be causing symptoms (e.g., hearing loss). Diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder takes particular care, because it often appears very different among individuals, and symptoms often change with development. More often than not, clients with Asperger’s or HFA also experience other related difficulties such as ADD/ADHD, depression, and learning disabilities that confound diagnosis. In addition, many times individuals who have characteristics that fit an Asperger’s profile are actually experiencing other difficulties. For example, it is sometimes challenging to distinguish Asperger’s Syndrome from symptoms experienced by a shy, depressed child who is verbally gifted. Symptoms common to autism spectrum disorders also need to be distinguished from symptoms that result from trauma. For this reason, the consideration of current life stressors is extremely important for a reliable diagnosis. Finally, an awareness and sensitivity to cultural factors that may confound accurate diagnosis is essential (e.g., the norms for respectful eye contact and communication vary from culture to culture).