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The Difference Between Autism Screening and Diagnosis

by Jaime Friedman

August 21, 2023


The Difference Between Autism Screening and Diagnosis

Determining if someone has autism is a detailed process, and for someone starting this journey, it can be difficult to understand the difference between autism screening and diagnosis. At Aspire Child and Family Services, we offer both autism screening and diagnosis services, and we are eager to offer support and guidance throughout the entire process. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a complex condition that has the potential to affect any combination of learning abilities, social interactions, communication skills and behavior. Unfortunately, the diagnostic process can be just as complicated, but our experts are trained to help you navigate it.  

Autism Screening vs. Diagnosis

Autism screening and diagnosis are two distinct stages in the autism identification process. While they are related, they serve different purposes. 

Autism Screening

Autism screening is the first step in identifying potential signs of autism in children. It consists of a brief evaluation that can occur in a number of settings. The screening process helps determine if a child is at risk for autism, but it is not a substitute for a formal diagnosis. The autism screening tools used at Aspire are evidence-based and have been carefully selected to ensure accuracy and efficiency throughout the process.   

Autism Diagnosis

Autism diagnosis, on the other hand, involves a more complete evaluation conducted by a team of qualified professionals. Diagnosis requires a thorough assessment of a child’s developmental history, behavioral habits, communication skills, and social interactions. Only during this stage can a provider confirm that their client meets the clinical criteria for autism, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM-5). 

Aspire Child and Family Services combines analysis from specialists for an accurate autism diagnosis. Collaboration between child psychologists, pediatricians, speech-language pathologists, and occupational therapists creates a clearer picture of each individual, as it includes observations made from different perspectives.  

The Process of Autism Diagnosis

Aspire Child and Family Services follows a rigorous, systematic process for autism diagnosis, aiming to provide accurate and reliable results. The steps involved in the diagnostic process include: 

  1. Referral and Intake: After displaying positive signs of autism during the screening process, your child may be referred to a specialist who can give an autism diagnosis. Upon receiving a referral, the team at Aspire will reach out to the child’s parents or caretakers for a formal intake interview. Like in the screening process, your child’s mental or behavioral health provider will gather all relevant information about their development, behavior, and any concerns the parents may have. 

  2. Comprehensive Assessment: There are multiple methods for the Aspire team to assess clients, including standardized tests, observations and direct interviews with parents. Using what we learn in the intake process, our professionals will evaluate which diagnostic tool might provide the most useful information leading to an autism diagnosis. 

  3. Collaboration and Analysis: Next, our team will analyze all the information we have learned about your child, along with the information provided in the referral. Your child’s provider might even dig deeper into your family medical history or your child’s personal health history before advancing to the next stage in autism diagnosis. 

  4. Formal Diagnosis: If our qualified experts determine that your child meets the specific DSM-5 criteria for ASD, they will finally receive a formal autism diagnosis. 

After an autism diagnosis is made, a new journey begins. Our providers work with parents and caregivers to recommend appropriate services and reevaluate the effectiveness as their children grow. 

Why are Both Autism Screening and Diagnosis Important?

Both autism screening and diagnosis are critical aspects of early identification and finding appropriate treatment that fits your child’s needs. Autism screening is essential for finding warning signs in children, and starting the screening process at a young age can lead to early detection. Screenings can be simple in some cases, but they could lead to a much more intricate autism diagnosis process. 

Behavioral and mental health providers use information gathered during an autism screening to inform their diagnosis. During diagnostic testing, your child’s care team will narrow their focus from a general inventory of behavior to calculated responses addressing individual skills.  

Misconceptions About Autism Screening and Diagnosis

Despite the importance of autism screening and diagnosis, there are still some common misconceptions worth noting: 

  • Autism Screening and Diagnosis are the Same: An autism screening never results in a diagnosis directly. Instead, it is a preliminary tool that determines if someone requires further evaluation for a diagnosis. 

  • Diagnoses Lead to Labels: It is understandable for parents to worry about how their child would be viewed after receiving a diagnosis. An autism diagnosis offers so many benefits, however, that it can be worth suppressing your fears. Diagnosis is the gateway leading to support and developmental resources. 

  • Screening and Diagnosis are Unnecessary: Perhaps the most dangerous misconception regarding autism is that screening and diagnosis are not important. Delaying or avoiding screening can lead to missed opportunities for early intervention. If an autism diagnosis is not necessary, the autism screening process will indicate that. 

Can a Positive Screening Result be Considered as a Diagnosis?

No, a positive autism screening result does not amount to a diagnosis. It indicates that the child is showing potential signs of ASD, and it triggers the process in which a diagnosis can later be made. A comprehensive diagnostic assessment must be completed before an autism diagnosis can be finalized. 

Who can Perform Autism Screening and Diagnosis?

Autism screening can be conducted by various healthcare professionals, educators, and specialists who have received training in early childhood development. Aspire Child and Family Services employs qualified professionals with expertise in autism assessment and early intervention.  

The main difference that distinguishes performing an autism diagnosis from performing a screening is in the level of specialization needed. Diagnosis requires a multidisciplinary team consisting of pediatricians, child psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and other specialists who are experienced in autism services. 

Aspire Child and Family Services recognizes the important roles screening and diagnosis both serve in providing comprehensive care and interventions for children and families affected by autism. Please contact us with any other questions you may have on autism screening and diagnosis.