Diagnosing autism is a lengthy process

Autism spectrum disorders cover a wide span of conditions and symptoms, from mild social impairment to severe mental retardation, making a quick definitive diagnosis difficult. It wasn’t until 1980 that autism was separated by medical experts from childhood schizophrenia or retardation and became an official clinical diagnosis.

Dr. Catherine Karni, a psychiatrist at UT Southwestern Medical Center and medical director of outpatient services at the Center for Pediatric Psychiatry at Children’s Medical Center Dallas, says patients often display a distinctive pattern of symptoms rather than just one. The main characteristics include impairments in social interaction, impairments in communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behaviors. Unusual sensory interests may also be part of the presentation. Parents are usually the first to notice the unusual behaviors, while pediatricians initially hear their concerns.

The prevalence rate of autism spectrum disorders has consistently increased over the past several years, and in 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official estimate of those affected was 1 in every 88. Early identification and intervention remain extremely important, and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommends autism-specific screening of all children at 9, 18, 24, and 30 months, as well as at any time children present with delayed language or communication, regression, or when parents voice concerns regarding autism.

“Autism cannot be diagnosed with a simple diagnostic test,” Dr. Karni says. “Having a team of specialists conduct specific assessments means there is a better chance for children to be diagnosed correctly and for the right treatments to be enacted. Many parents take their child to a pediatrician because the child is not talking. But there are many possibilities for this behavior. Autism is only one.

“If a diagnosis is confirmed, different treatments including applied behavioral analysis, a form of behavioral therapy; speech, physical, and occupational therapy; and medications that target specific symptoms can be helpful.”

Visit www.utswmedicine.org/conditions-specialties/pediatrics to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical services in pediatrics. For more on the Medical Center’s Autism Center, visit www.utsouthwestern.edu/education/medical-school/departments/psychiatry/divisions/autism/index.html National sites include the CDC at www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/hcp-screening.html and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Media Contact: Jeff Carlton