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Child Diagnosis

Autism Child Diagnosis

If you think that your child has characteristics of Autism, you may feel worried and uncertain about what to do. The process of getting a formal diagnosis can be confusing, as the tools and systems that are used for diagnosis continually change and evolve.

You can seek a diagnosis in two ways - publically through the HSE or  a private clinic. In this section, we have broken down the key information you need to know about each option, along with advice to help guide you through the process. You can find detailed information in our downloadable guide Starting your Autism Journey. Please contact our Information Line if you would like any guidance.

Public Assessment

A public assessment for Autism is a freeservice. There are currently THREE different routes available.

1.  Applying for an Assessment of Need

If you would like your child to be assessed for Autism, you can apply for an Assessment of Need. To Apply for an Assessment of Need, you need to contact your local Assessment Officer. You can find them through your Local Health Centre. Alternatively, you can download the Assessment of Need form and post it to them.

After you submit your application, you will get a confirmation letter from HSE and a date saying when they will start the assessment. They must send you this letter within 14 days.

If the Assessment Officer is happy that your child needs an Autism assessment, they must arrange a referral within 3 months of receiving your completed application. Once the referral is made there will be another 3 months for the assessment to take place. This is legally mandated through the Disability Act 2005.

If your child is diagnosed as Autistic, you will receive a Service Statement. A Service Statement lists the services the HSE proposes to provide to meet your child's needs and the timeframe in which those services should be provided. It is prepared by a Liaison Officer and must be completed within one month of the assessment report being completed.

2. Referral to Children's Disability Services

There are two routes to accessing support via HSE’s Children’s Disability Service.

If your child has a difficulty or difference in one area (such as speech delay), it is likely a referral to Disability Services will result in you being placed on a waiting list for Primary Care. However, if your child has more complex needs and requires specialist services delivered by a team of professionals, they will be seen by the Children's Disability Network Team (CDNT). The CDNT can include professionals such as Occupational Therapists, Speech and Language Therapists and Psychologists.

As a parent/guardian, you can self-refer your child to the CDNT. You do this by completing the electronic forms housed on the HSE Children's Disability Services webpage. The team will review the forms you submit and based on this information will contact you regarding next steps.

If you are referred to the CDNT, the team will make observations of your child and listen to you. They may decide to proceed with a standardised diagnostic tool for Autism.

3. National Educational Psychology Service (NEPS)

NEPS provides educational psychological support to all recognised primary and post-primary schools in Ireland. As part of this service, they can offer psychological assessments for children who have learning, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

It may be worth speaking with your child's Principal about the possibility of NEPS carrying out an Autism assessment with your child. In our experience, this route is the least common way of getting an Autism assessment.

Should I apply for an Assessment Of Need and self-refer to the Children's Disability Services?

Given the ever-changing processes in place, you may feel the best opportunity your child has to be seen is by completing both referrals. It is worth noting that the CDNT does not exist purely for assessment, and it is not diagnosis-led. Therefore, if your child presents with a complex need in communication, sensory processing, cognition, motor skills and/or emotion that requires multi-professional input, they can in theory receive support from the CDNT.

Private Assessment

Due to the waiting lists and confusion regarding assessment routes, many parents may choose to seek a private assessment. This means that the Autism assessment is carried out by a chartered psychologist who is working privately, and not in the HSE. The cost of a private assessment can range between one to two thousand Euros, which can be restrictive for most people.

It is crucial that you carefully research the individual you select to undertake an Autism assessment. There is currently no regulation of psychologists in Ireland, which means it is easy for an individual who has not completed the full psychologist training to offer Autism assessments.

What credentials to look for in a psychologist?

If you are considering a private psychologist to complete the assessment, check the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) website to see if they hold a Chartered Membership. If you are concerned that the psychologist you are considering does not hold Chartered Membership, ask them for their 2023 PSI Chartered Membership certificate. Any chartered psychologist will be more than happy to clarify their credentials and qualifications to you and will understand why you need to request this information.

Are they neurodiversity affirmative?

It is hugely important that your child's experience of the assessment does not reinforce any negative stereotypes they may hold of themselves, and instead empowers and supports them. When your child grows up they may want to read their report, so it is important that it does not make them feel like they have a ‘deficit’. It should highlight their strengths.

Look at the Psychologist’s website carefully to get a feel for their attitude towards neurodiversity. Is the language they use neurodiversity affirmative (exploring neuro differences, highlighting strengths and areas of support) or medicalised (referring to Autism as Autism Spectrum Disorder, focusing on difficulties and impairments)?

What assessments do they conduct?

You should ask exactly what standardised tools are being used, and the purpose of using them.

The standard diagnostic tools used in Ireland are DSM-5 and ADOS. a diagnosis should not be given based on the ADOS alone. The ADOS is designed to be used alongside a parent interview, a child interview (if suitable) and clinical observations carried out by the professional.

If your child is also being seen by a speech and language therapist or occupational therapist as part of the assessment, they may also conduct assessments such as the Sensory Processing Measure.

What should the diagnostic report include?

While there is some variation, a diagnostic report will often include:

• Credentials of assessor
• Background and reasons for assessment
• Demographics of child
• Standardised tests used (with descriptions).
• Results of tests (you will usually see tables here)
• Interpretation of tests (what do those numbers mean?)
• Parent narrative/feedback arising from interview
• Child narrative/feedback arising from interview
• Conclusion and summary of needs and strengths
• Recommendations. This section is KEY! Often parents look for the conclusion (has the child been diagnosed) and worry less about the recommendations/summary of needs. However, the recommendations of the diagnosing professional are crucial when it comes to applying for certain school supports and even social welfare payments. These recommendations should go across multiple domains of the child's life; school, home, community etc. Finally, these recommendations should be individualised to your child, should educate you about your child's autistic experience, and empower you as an advocate.

What to expect from an Assessment

An Autism diagnosis is a lifelong neurological disability, and the clinician will take time to make sure that they get to know your child and their unique personality.  Whatever route you decide to take to diagnosis, the process will take a similar format.

Who will be involved?

Autism assessments usually involve at least one clinician with relevant training and expert knowledge. Teams of clinicians including psychiatrists, psychologists, speech and language therapists, and/or occupational therapists can work together to complete an assessment. These are called Multi-Disciplinary Teams (MDTs).

What sort of information will they need?

Most clinicians ask what your child was like around their 5th birthday. They might ask about your child's life and any mental health concerns, their learning needs, their medical history, and about significant life events.

The clinician will always want to spend time with the child being assessed and get to know them. To see what autistic traits a child might have, they should observe how they might react to different situations, and will likely use a standardised test/ tool to help them with this. The clinician will ask the child to talk on certain topics, to do puzzles and/or play games with them. For an older child, they will likely ask questions about their own experience of autistic traits and their own understanding of self.

What will the clinician be assessing?

The clinician will be looking to see:

• Are there current and past differences in social communication (e.g., is there a preference to communicate without eye contact)?
• Are there interests and focuses that are specific or intense or passionate?
• Is there a difference in the sensory experience of the world (e.g. might be very sensitive to noise)?

They may want to assess cognitive abilities, such as what sort of tasks the child can do independently and at school.

How will a diagnosis be made?

Clinicians use diagnostic criteria, or a checklist of observable traits or characteristics, to determine if a child is autistic. These criteria have changed over time based on a growing understanding of autism.When making a diagnosis, the clinician uses their judgement based on what they have been told by the child, the people who know them well, and what the clinician has seen first-hand when they have met with them. They might provide an alternative suggestion as to why the individual may be feeling different from others and/ or experience difficulties.

ADOS (The Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule)
The ADOS is currently considered the gold standard of assessment tools in diagnosing Autism, and it is also one of the assessment tools that is used by the HSE.

A diagnosis should not be given based on the ADOS alone. The ADOS is designed to be used alongside a parent interview, a child interview (if suitable) and clinical observations carried out by the professional.

The Next Steps –Post-Diagnosis

After diagnosis, it may take time to learn more about being Autistic. This page aims to give post-diagnosis Autism information to help navigate this experience.You can download our guides for more detailed advice and guidance:

What is the next thing I should do after receiving an Autism diagnosis?

One of the most important things to do post-diagnosis is to fully immerse yourself in learning about Autism. Research using charity websites, online support groups, books or watching videos and programmes about Autism. Whether you are a parent of an Autistic child or an Autistic adult (or indeed both), it is important to learn about Autism through the Autistic voice, hearing about experiences directly from Autistic people. There is a huge amount of knowledge, books and resources out there, all produced by Autistic people. Following Autistic advocates on social media is a great way to learn about what the Autistic community cares about and what support they need. Forming a strong understanding of what Autism is and what Autism isn’t is going to be a great basis going forward for how you support your child or yourself.

What supports are available to me after receiving an Autism diagnosis?

Support that Autistic people need is very individual depending on the person. Because there is nothing ‘wrong’ with being Autistic any “treatments” or support should not target Autism in general. Rather, the supports or treatments an Autistic person might need are focused on the difficulties or challenges they experience as an individual. For example, if an Autistic person is experiencing difficulty with communication in a specific situation they might visit a  Speech and Language Therapist. On the other hand, an Occupational Therapist (or OT) can be a useful support for Autistic people who experience sensory challenges or challenging behaviours, and can help them develop skills to manage these challenges. If they are experiencing significant anxiety, it might be helpful to see a psychologist or psychotherapist to help (ensuring the therapist has a good, modern understanding of Autism and what can help).

As a parent, if your child has just received a diagnosis of Autism, the most important thing you can do is fully accept and understand your child, recognising where specifically they need support.

How can I explain to my child that they are Autistic?

One of the most important things to do post-diagnosis is to discuss Autism with your child. Speaking about being Autistic with your child positively and openly can have a positive impact on them. Normalising the diagnosis can create an accepting atmosphere for your child.

You might worry that telling your child that they are Autistic might “label” them and will have a negative effect.  However, research has suggested that children who are open and understand that they are Autistic generally struggle less with their mental health. Autistic adults who received late diagnosis almost all say that they wish that they had known about and understood their Autism at a young age. They say they always knew they were different, they just didn’t have a name for it, and speak with huge positivity about now having an explanation.

The best way of introducing the subject to your child is to talk about it as early as possible, and discuss it often in a very normal way. Talk to your child about neurodiversity and how lots of different people have different types of brains. Explain to your child that being Autistic is a term that describes how their brain works, and how they like to communicate, how they experience the world. Speak positively about being Autistic and show your child that many Autistic people are just like them. Normalise differences at home, and let your child know that it is a good thing that we are all unique.

Are there any ‘therapies’ that are safe for my child?

As a parent, you will understandably want to support your child to overcome things which they are having difficulties with. The most important thing to keep in mind with regards to ‘treatments’ is that there should be no therapy which targets autism in general. Autism itself is not something that needs to be ‘treated’ or ‘cured’. However, your child may have specific challenges or experience specific barriers in different areas in which they could use some support.

Unfortunately, there are many ‘treatments’ being advertised for Autism out there that are not evidence-based and can be detrimental to your child’s progression. Supporting your Autistic child should be about embracing your child’s differences and uniqueness. It is very important that you choose supports that are credible and provided by credible, accredited professionals.

A good way to gauge whether a support will have a positive effect on your child is by looking for feedback from the Autistic community. Autistic adults are your best way of understanding the effects of a treatment or support.

Choosing A Support

While it is important that any support you choose is evidence-based, it is also important to note that just because a treatment is ‘evidence-based’ does not mean that it will suit your child or that it is a good treatment.

There are many treatments in the past that would have had a strong evidence base but today these treatments are dismissed. Keep critical of the treatments you are considering for your child. Ensure the person providing the support is fully qualified and accredited. Have a look and see if they are a member of accreditation groups such as the PSI (Psychological Society Ireland), the IACP (Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) or the IASLT (Irish Association for Speech and Language Therapists). Ask in advance of seeing any therapist if they have experience working with Autism and the kinds of strategies and models they use and follow.

For more information on the next steps post-diagnosis check our Autism Journey resource Understanding Your Child’s Autism Diagnosis. It lays out the steps leading up to and after a diagnosis for your child.