Autism Diagnosis: What to Do Next

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Health practitioners often use applied behavior analysis in working with individuals who have been diagnosed with autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 of every 59 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The CDC notes that this disorder impacts individuals in “all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups,” and that the incidence of ASD in children has been rising steadily.

This increased incidence may indicate that awareness of ASD has grown over the years. But even with heightened awareness, families may not be sure how to respond when a loved one has received an autism diagnosis.

Over the years, a deeper understanding of autism spectrum disorder has enabled health practitioners and mental health professionals to provide impactful treatment that can help individuals with ASD live healthy and fulfilling lives.

The Evaluation Process

No single diagnostic procedure, such as a blood test, can determine whether a person has ASD, according to the CDC. Additionally, because autism is a disorder that exists along a spectrum of severity, individuals diagnosed with autism may exhibit different behaviors or symptoms than others with the same diagnosis.

The Child Mind Institute notes that before a formal diagnostic evaluation, screening tools such as questionnaires and assessments may help medical or mental health practitioners identify behaviors that indicate potential autism and if a child may need further evaluation. Typically, the earliest screening is completed by a pediatrician. Some of the indicators of ASD at different points in a child’s life can include variances in their communication, language, eye contact/fixation, and sensory-motor or social behavior, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Although many children and individuals do not receive an autism diagnosis until they are older, “research has found that ASD can sometimes be detected at 18 months or younger.” By age two, a diagnosis by an experienced professional “can be considered very reliable,” according to the CDC. After a general screening by a health care provider, children typically receive a referral to a specialist trained in autism diagnosis. The specialist may start with a general interview or  developmental screening. Next, the specialist will assess key characteristics that may distinguish if a child has autism versus another disorder. According to the ASHA, these characteristics include eye gaze, the ability to imitate, nonverbal communication, language development, and whether the individual responds to their name, among other symptoms. The CDC also provides a helpful flowchart noting how this process could potentially take place within a health organization. A health organization may also use a variety of diagnostic tools in this process, including various checklists, assessments, and questionnaires.

The specialist will complete a comprehensive assessment of the individual. A comprehensive assessment itself, according to the Autism Science Foundation, can include:

  • Review of medical/psychological records
  • Standardized assessments, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-2 (ADOS-2) or the Mullen Scales for Early Learning
  • Interviewing, where the individual or caregiver is asked open-ended questions
  • Behavior observation, using Adaptive Behavior Scales, like the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales that measure communication, activities of daily living, and other behaviors

The Child Mind Institute suggests that individuals who are being evaluated for autism meet with experienced practitioners who can provide a reliable diagnosis. After reviewing the data collected from the comprehensive assessment, health practitioners will provide a thorough report, which may provide a diagnosis of ASD.

A Look at Long-Term Help

After getting an autism diagnosis, families and individuals may wonder about next steps. Because autism is a disorder that can impact individuals differently, treatment methods will also differ.One therapy that can be of great benefit is applied behavior analysis, or ABA. According to Autism Speaks, “ABA therapy applies our understanding of how behavior works to real situations. The goal is to increase behaviors that are helpful and decrease behaviors that are harmful or affect learning.” For example, if a student misbehaves verbally in class, applied behavior analysis could be used to identify, improve upon, and change the disruptive behavior.

ABA therapy can be adapted to meet the specific circumstances and needs of an individual. For example, certain ABA techniques or approaches could be used to help a person on the autism spectrum who is completely nonverbal. Other ABA tools and methods could help another individual with ASD who is facing different difficulties with communication, speech, and language.One of the primary ABA approaches that is used after an autism diagnosis is positive reinforcement. Here, the display and exhibition of appropriate behaviors are positively reinforced by some kind of reward, such as praise, according to Autism Speaks. For example, with a student who exhibits disruptive verbal behavior, an applied behavior analyst could identify a more appropriate behavior, such as speaking when called upon or using certain volumes in specific settings. Then, whenever the student exhibits the alternative behavior, this would be reinforced by a reward, such as a designated amount of time with a toy or to engage in another enjoyable activity.

Identifying and addressing certain behaviors through ABA therapy also incorporates an understanding of an antecedent that precedes a certain behavior, and the consequences that follow it. Antecedents refer to the events or experiences that happen to a person and impact their behavior, and consequences refer to the actions or events that take place as a result of the behavior. For example, verbally disruptive behavior may result from a student’s feeling uncomfortable or anxious after being called upon in class. Being called upon in class could be an antecedent, while feeling nervous is the behavior. If the student exhibits a more positive behavior in response to the antecedent, the consequence could be a reward. If the student exhibits a negative behavior in response to the antecedent, a consequence could be the teacher not acknowledging or responding to the negative behavior. With this understanding of antecedents and the application of consequences, applied behavior analysts can help determine what is causing certain behaviors, as well as the best way to address them.ABA is a beneficial approach to helping individuals diagnosed with autism, because it can help address problem behaviors that are specific to an individual and help develop solutions that fit the needs of that individual.

An Advanced Degree for Helping Patients and Their Families

When an individual is diagnosed with autism, families may not know what actions to take or what tools may be available to help their loved one. An applied behavior analyst is a professional who understands how autism can impact individuals differently and is dedicated to helping these individuals develop more positive behaviors. A masters in Applied Behavior Analysis online provides students with the ability to practice and apply ABA concepts in a variety of health settings. Through an in-depth curriculum offering advanced courses, such as Behavior Assessment, Ethical Practice in ABA, and ABA Training and Supervision, students gain the skills to help individuals diagnosed with autism and their families implement long-term strategies that promote positive behaviors.

Discover more about how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis helps students develop the tools to improve the lives of a diverse range of individuals.


Recommended Readings

Technology and Therapy: The Use of AAC Devices in Applied Behavior Analysis

Exploring ABA Techniques and Their Role in Treatment

What Is the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)? A Look at a Key ABA Technique


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Autism

Autism Speaks, “Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Data & Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Screening and Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder for Healthcare Providers”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Pediatric Developmental Screening Flowchart”

Child Mind Institute, “What Should an Evaluation for Autism Look Like?”

Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders, “Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (A-B-C) Analysis”