Who typically receives a diagnosis of autism?
Autism is often noticed from an early age, from birth to three years old. If you suspect your child has autism, early identification is important to ensure they receive appropriate assessment and support as soon as possible.
Special education programmes and support of family/whānau play an important part in helping the child achieve their full potential as they grow into teenagers and adults.
For those who are not diagnosed at an early age, difficulties often become more apparent during adolescence and early adulthood. Social difficulties, stress related to sensory sensitivities and difficulties with achieving grades that accurately reflect a person’s level of intelligence can all contribute to an increase in distress for a young person with undiagnosed autism. As a result, they may report an increase in anxiety and mood difficulties.
What causes autism?
Even though a lot of research into autism has gone on around the world, the exact cause is still unknown. It’s known that genes somehow play a part, with certain gene patterns making it more likely that a child will have autism. Vaccinations, environmental toxins and diet are not causes of autism.
Studies have also shown that autistic people have a greater chance of having a sibling or parent with autism as well. Sometimes parents or siblings of someone with autism may not meet criteria for an autism diagnosis, but show some similar traits and thinking styles.
Characteristics of autism
How a doctor determines if you or your child your child has autism (diagnosis)
A GP may refer you or your child for an assessment by a specialist (usually a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist) if there is evidence of some or all of the typical characteristics of autism and if they have been prevalent throughout development and across different situations. For this reason, it’s important that your doctor spends time with you/your child to get a full understanding of your experience.
The specialist will talk with you or your child and other important people, such as family members or teachers. It is common in young children for an audiology assessment to take place, to rule out hearing loss as an explanation for some behaviours. After this, if autism is still considered likely, formal assessment takes place, which may include questionnaires and an observation assessment such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Scale (ADOS-2).
If autism is confirmed, a support plan will be tailor-made for you or your child.
In addition, your doctor or mental health professional can provide you a referral to agencies that can offer financial support, respite and assistance with interventions; sometimes this can be done even without a diagnosis.
Thanks to Madeline Dykes, clinical psychologist, and Sophie Jackson of the Mental Health Foundation's lived experience group for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2022.
Thanks also to Sutherland Self-Help Trust for making the 2022 updates possible.