Australia’s first National Guideline for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders was launched in 2018.
The Guideline is the first unified approach to the assessment and diagnosis of autism in Australia. It aims to make the process for diagnosing autism much clearer, providing greater:
- equity in access to an assessment
- transparency and confidence in the decision-making process
- a clearly defined pathway to support needs.
The Guideline was developed after comprehensive research, and close consultation with expert health professionals and the autism community.
The recommendations in the Guideline are approved as best-practice health care.
About the Guideline
The Guideline does not redefine, or change the specific criteria for a diagnosis of autism, but outlines a clear, step-by-step process for assessment.
This will help health professionals determine your support needs, and whether you meet the criteria for a diagnosis.
The Guideline emphasises the importance of listening to individuals and their families, caregivers and support people about the impact of characteristics on daily life. Your needs and priorities are critical considerations at each step.
The Guideline also recommends a strengths-focused approach. This means that identifying your strengths, skills, interests, resources and support systems is as important as identifying any challenges.
There is no biological test – such as a blood test or scan – for autism. It is usually diagnosed by trained health professionals, who observe certain characteristics such as social communication, behaviours and intense or focused interests.
Primary healthcare providers (such as GPs, nurses, allied health professionals or Aboriginal health workers) are usually the first point of contact. They will begin the process by referring you to a health professional who has experience in assessing neurodevelopmental conditions.
The signs and behaviours that characterise autism are often present before three years of age, but may first become apparent during the school years or later in life. Autism can vary widely in nature and impact, and may be accompanied by mental and physical health problems.
The assessment process
After being referred to a health professional with expertise in autism diagnosis, the Guideline recommends a Comprehensive Needs Assessment.
This assessment has two parts:
- An Assessment of Functioning – this involves obtaining a detailed understanding of your abilities, and any support needs you might have, across a broad range of areas. These areas include cognitive abilities, speech and language function, daily living skills, relationships, study and work.
- A Medical Evaluation – this involves a physical examination and other medical tests to understand if there could be medical causes for the behaviours or characteristics that prompted your referral.
Depending on your needs, you may be immediately referred to various support services.
If there is still uncertainty about an autism diagnosis, the Guideline recommends a Diagnostic Evaluation. This will establish whether your characteristics are consistent with a diagnosis of autism or another condition.
This may involve interviews with you and other key people in your life, and professional observation and assessment of the signs and characteristics you may display.
The Diagnostic Evaluation may be conducted by one health professional alone, or a team of health professionals who make a consensus diagnostic decision together. The professionals who are involved will depend on a range of factors, such as the type or complexity of your characteristics, and any other conditions you may have.
After an assessment
After the assessment, the Guideline recommends that the health professionals involved provide you with a written report, explained to you in a meeting. If you choose, your caregivers or support people could also receive this report.
The report will summarise the information collected during the assessment and what this information means. It will also explain any decisions that have been made about a diagnosis, and suggest next steps for accessing support services.
What to expect – in summary
If you have been referred for an assessment, you should expect:
- A timely and thorough assessment.
- Consideration of your unique needs, strengths and resources.
- Prompt referral to support services based on your functioning and needs.
- A report summarising the assessment findings and diagnostic decision, explained in person by an expert health professional.