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What can I expect from an autism screening?

Autism screening: What to expect

Updated: October 19, 2023 · 5 Minute Read

Nonyé Nwosu-Kanu, PhD

Reviewed by:

Nonyé Nwosu-Kanu, Ph.D.

Highlights

  • A parent or caregiver will most likely answer a series of questions during an autism screening. A pediatrician or other trained professional might observe your child’s behaviors.
  • Questions include if there are any delays in communication with others and how your child reacts to changes in routine.
  • Having your child screened for autism and being diagnosed with autism are two different things.

What is an autism screening?

An autism screener is a test that is designed to help parents and medical professionals identify children who may have developmental delays associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Screening tools may be specific to a disorder, like autism, specific to an area, such as social communication or motor skills, or general development, like hearing ability. 

 

Depending on the screener used, parents or caregivers may answer a series of questions, have their child observed by a pediatrician or other trained professional, or both. 

 

You can find free autism screeners online or work with your child’s pediatrician during their routine well-child checkup. If you want to understand your options, here is our list of the best autism tests and screeners for kids. Some may go straight to a clinical or developmental psychologist or another type of autism specialist for an autism screening and evaluation.

 

Why do I need to have my child screened? 

Early diagnosis and early intervention are essential for autism or any other developmental concerns because they provide information about individual and special needs. 

 

Having your child screened early and regularly will help you identify and report symptoms indicating needs specific to autism and development. Early intervention can help a child get the help they may need to have a better quality of life and participate more fully in the world. 

 

What do autism screeners look for?

Some common things you may be asked in an autism screener:

  • Delays in communicating with others including speech and gestures 
  • Not responding to one’s own name
  • Getting upset over minor changes in routine
  • Avoiding many, if not most, forms of physical contact
  • Showing little interest in objects or people

 

How often should my child be screened? 

That depends on who you ask. 

 

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that a child should be screened for autism during their 18 and 24-month well-child checkups.1 However, the National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities (NCBDD) recommends that children be screened more frequently, at 9, 18, 24, and 30 months.2 

 

Depending on your pediatrician, they may choose to follow either the AAP or NCBDD recommendations. However, you are the expert on your child, so if at any time you have developmental concerns, it is important to discuss your care options with your pediatrician. 

 

What's the difference between screening and diagnosis? 

The results of an autism screener are meant to help parents, caregivers, and medical professionals identify children who are potentially at risk for autism and may require further evaluation (and possibly a diagnosis) to understand their unique needs and areas for additional support. 

 

A diagnostic test, or full evaluation, can result in a formal diagnosis. It’s also more accurate than a screening and requires more details.

 

What can I expect from a diagnostic evaluation for autism?

The diagnosis process should be done by someone with experience and specialty in neurodevelopmental disabilities and care to determine if it is truly autism or if another condition exists.

 

An autism diagnosis will be based on the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The DSM-5 lists two criteria for an autism diagnosis: 

  • Persistent challenges in social communication and social interaction
  • Restricted or repetitive patterns of behavior, interest, or activities

 

The diagnostic process is complex. After a full autism evaluation, your child may or may not receive an autism diagnosis. This can mean that despite behavioral or developmental concerns, they do not have autism because they do not meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis, or their behavior is better explained by something else, like a different medical condition. 


In another common example, a child might receive an autism diagnosis in addition to another condition like Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or anxiety. A diagnosis will include information on what level of support is required. For more information on the diagnostic process, check out our parent’s autism diagnosis guide or find an expert near you.

Article References

  1. Hyman S.L, et al. Identification, Evaluation, and Management of Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Academy of Pediatrics. January 2020: 145(1). Accessed September 10, 2022. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/145/1/e20193447/36917/Identification-Evaluation-and-Management-of?autologincheck=redirected?nfToken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000#7411840
  2. Screening & Assessment. Autism Research Institute. Accessed September 10, 2022. https://www.autism.org/screening-assessment/