Last Modified: March 29, 2023 | Published: March 22, 2023
A common myth about autism is that your doctor or school can rule it out for your child. Let’s look into the myth and learn what you can do if you’re concerned about your child.
Most doctors do not diagnose, nor can they rule out, autism.
What’s that now? Although there are some pediatricians and general practice doctors that diagnose autism, this is not the norm. Further, any doctor that truly can rule autism in or out, would do testing. Some developmental and behavioral pediatricians, psychiatrists, and pediatricians diagnose autism. In that case, they run autism-specific tests. These tests may include some social skills testing and rating scales. They may also collaborate with other professionals.
If your doctor is testing your child for autism, you would know.
If your child is being evaluated for autism, your doctor would tell you. You would likely have to come in for a separate visit. This testing usually takes several hours, and there are specific tests doctors would use, such as the STAT, ADOS, GARS, CARS, and Vineland. Note: the Vineland is not a diagnostic test for autism. It is a developmental assessment commonly used during an autism evaluation.
This myth extends to some other professionals as well. Some examples include speech therapists, occupational therapists, and school psychologists. It is a myth that these professionals ruled autism out for your child. Again, these professionals do NOT diagnose autism independently. Specialists of this nature are often on diagnostic teams but do not independently diagnose OR rule out autism.
Alongside this myth is the idea that “my school ruled out autism.”
Schools DO NOT diagnose or rule out autism.
Schools will assess autism for special education identification. A school might be concerned that a child may have a qualifying disability, such as autism. The school can conduct an evaluation to determine if the child qualifies for services. These evaluations are geared toward certain educational categories. Schools cannot and do not diagnose autism or rule it out.
Why do doctors not diagnose autism, though?
Many parents feel frustrated to hear this news. They feel that their pediatricians know their children best and are able to answer so many other questions, why not this?
Common reasons why doctors don’t diagnose autism
- Autism is a complex diagnosis. Specific training in autism or developmental disabilities is needed. Most pediatricians and general practice doctors do not have this training.
- Doctors are charged with running through a long list of questions and assessments during well-checks. There simply isn’t time to do autism tests, which often take several hours.
This myth is common
We hear it all the time. Dr. Kroncke and I have heard comments like this almost daily. “My doctor told me we should just ‘wait-and-see’.” “My doctor said he doesn’t have autism because he has great motor skills.” “My doctor said he doesn’t have autism because his language is so advanced.” “My doctor said she doesn’t have autism because she has such a huge vocabulary.” Kids with autism can have all of those skills!
To be fair, it’s possible that there was some miscommunication. Maybe the doctors told these families, “I am not concerned about autism right now” or something of that nature. Sometimes people do hear what they want to hear. However, in the case that doctors are ruling out autism without any testing, parents should be concerned.
Why this myth is a problem
Wasted time. When parents are told that their kids do not have autism, precious time slips away. Young children who are identified early can make substantial gains. Brain plasticity is on their side. Early identification also increases the ability to intervene at an earlier point in their developmental trajectory.
The gist is, if we can help them early, we can help them so much more.
Okay, but if the doctor doesn’t do it, who does?
The best place to assess for autism is with a licensed psychologist or medical doctor who clearly tests for autism. These professionals are often in a hospital or diagnostic clinic. Many private clinics focus on autism assessment. Those practices will have tests like the ADOS that they use to diagnose or rule out autism. To get a valid test for autism, you need a licensed diagnostic clinician with expertise in that area.
Some parents worry that by asking the question, they are “making it true.” That is, they think that a psychologist looking for autism will find it, whether it’s there or not. I cannot speak for every clinic and hospital, but I can tell you from my own experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
I have personally seen many families come in with autism concerns and go home with a totally different diagnosis or a clean bill of health. Although a diagnosis can be stressful for parents, they virtually always say they feel relieved. They feel that they understand their children better, know what services they could benefit from, and can see the path forward.
So, families, please do not be afraid. If there are concerns, pursue a diagnostic evaluation, and do not delay.