NHS explains how to get tested for autism and how it is diagnosed

Boy with fidget toy
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The NHS has shared a guide explaining how adults and parents with children can get assessed for autism. According to the World Health Organisation, about one in 100 children has autism.

Autism can be diagnosed during early childhood, but often it is not detected until later on. It is possible for autistic adults to go undiagnosed for much of their life.

If you are seeking a formal assessment or don't know where to start, the NHS advice below could help. If you think you or your child have signs of autism, the first step is to talk to someone about it.

You could speak to a GP or a health visitor (for children under five). You could also contact any other health professional you or your child see, such as another doctor, therapist or special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO).

You can ask them about referring you or your child for an autism assessment. An assessment is done by autism specialists. It's the only way to find out if you or your child are autistic. You may have to wait a few months to get an appointment.

What you can do while you wait for an assessment

If you think you or your child need support at school, home or at work, you can start getting help before having an assessment.

You can:

  • ask a GP if the assessment team can suggest any support groups

  • ask a GP to refer your child for speech and language therapy

  • find a local support group using the National Autistic Society services directory

  • talk to teachers or special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) staff at your child's school

  • speak to student support services at college or university

  • speak to your manager or human resources at work

  • ask your local council for a needs assessment to see what support they can recommend

Having an autism assessment

An autism assessment is where a team of autism specialists check if you or your child are autistic. An assessment team may:

  • ask about any problems you or your child are having

  • watch how you or your child interact with other people

  • speak to people who know you or your child well, such as family, friends, your GP or your child's teachers

At the end of the assessment, you'll be given a report saying if you or your child are autistic. Find out what happens during an autism assessment.

You or your child may have one or more appointments with a team of different professionals. For children, the assessment team may:

  • ask you about your child's development, such as when they started talking

  • watch how you and your child interact, and how your child plays

  • read any reports sent by their GP, nursery or school

  • ask about their medical history and do a physical examination

A member of the team may also visit your child's school to watch them in class and at break time. For adults, the assessment team may:

  • ask you to fill in a questionnaire about yourself and any problems you have

  • speak to someone who knew you as a child to find out about your childhood

  • read any reports from the GP about other health problems you may have

How a diagnosis can help

For parents and children, a diagnosis can help you:

For adults, a diagnosis can help you:

  • understand why you might find some things harder than other people

  • explain to others why you see and feel the world in a different way

  • get support at college, university or work

  • get some financial benefits

Getting the result

When the assessment is finished, you'll be given a report saying what the team found. You may be given it by the team or get it in the post.

The report will say:

  • if you or your child are autistic – it might say something like you "meet the criteria for autism spectrum diagnosis"

  • what you or your child might need help with – such as social interaction, communication, behaviours or sensitivity to lights, colours and sounds

  • what you or your child are good at

Sometimes the report can be hard to understand as it can be full of terms used by healthcare professionals. Ask the assessment team if you need any help.

You and your child should also be offered another appointment a few weeks or months later, to talk to someone from the assessment team about the report. Autism is a lifelong condition, so the report will be used throughout childhood and into adulthood.

If you do not agree with the result

When you get the report, you may:

  • be told you or your child are not autistic

  • be asked to wait until your child is a bit older to be assessed again, as the signs of autism may not be clear

  • be given a diagnosis you do not agree with, such as a learning disability

Ask the assessment team why they have made the diagnosis they have. The assessment team might arrange for a second opinion from a different team.

If you still do not agree, you can ask the GP to refer you to another team for a second opinion. Or you can pay for another assessment by a professional you choose who works outside the NHS (privately). Remember that a second opinion may say the same thing.

If you find it hard to get an assessment

It's not always easy to get an autism assessment. Waiting times can also be very long. If you're finding it hard to get an assessment, you could ask to speak to someone else, like another GP – this is called getting a second opinion.

It may also help to speak to other people who have been in a similar situation. Find out about where to get support.