TUCSON, Ariz. — According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, about 1.7-percent of children in the U.S. are diagnosed with autism. Specifically in Arizona, that number is 1.4-percent.
Depending on the severity of symptoms, local psychologist Dr. Kristin Thompson said, most parents may start to notice less typical behavior in their child between the ages of one or two. She said at least 90 percent of parents have reported noticing symptoms before age three.
"The earliest right now that we can reliably assess and diagnosis autism is starting around age two. However, for kids with more mild symptoms of autism, often times we can't confidently diagnosis autism until they're in a school setting and needing social skills and suddenly we can see that they're social and communication skills are behind where they should be," said Thompson.
And she said its hard to state a specific age when a child can be considered to be in the clear of having autism.
"That being said, if a kid was engaging with others, trying to play, interested in socializing and playing with other kids by the time they're in preschool, about age three, it would be extremely unlikely they would end up with a diagnosis of autism," said Thompson.
The screening and diagnosing process for autism is quite different from other medical tests. The process happens over a few different appointments, over the course of a few weeks.
Psychologists meet with parents to get information on the child's behaviors, medical and developmental history. They will then try to obtain records from medical providers the child has already seen, such as a speech therapist. If the child is in school, the psychologist will also talk with teachers about their learning and social habits. The formal testing usually comes after gathering all of that data. Its a one-on-one session where factors like IQ, communication skills and play are measured more objectively.
"And then when its all done, all that information is taken together and we can say, 'Yes the difficulties they are having are due to autism or no they're due to something else,'" said Thompson.
Once that diagnosis comes back as the child having autism, the next phase is breaking the news to the parents.
"Honestly, I think the most common reaction I get is relief. Usually by the time a parent has sought out getting an evaluation and getting their child tested for autism, they've had sometimes years of dealing with behavior problems and social problems and learning issues and not knowing why." So they've tried lots and lots of things and nothing's worked," said Thompson.
She said the diagnosis can make the parents feel better because they finally know the issues their child has is not due to bad parenting or simply because their child is behaving poorly. The child is struggling because they have autism.
"And then now that we know they have autism, we can direct them of what are the best interventions and where to go," said Thompson.
Now having a treatment plan families can move forward with.