Autism in childhood and adulthood: What is it, and what does an assessment for autism involve?

Do you think that you or your child might be autistic? Our clinical psychologist, Angel Lee-Aube, answers some frequently asked questions about autism in childhood and adulthood to help you navigate the assessment process, and better understand what an autism diagnosis could mean for you.


What is Autism

Autism is a lifelong developmental condition characterised by differences in social interaction, communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and sensory sensitivities. Autism characteristics and traits exist on a spectrum. The word spectrum reflects the wide range of differences and challenges people on the autistic spectrum may experience, and the extent to which they may be affected. Autism has many different characteristics, and no two people on the autism spectrum are alike.

What is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a diagnostic label. A formal diagnosis of ASD can be helpful in providing clinical care and appropriate services for individuals. It is important to know that someone can identify as being autistic or on the autistic spectrum, but may not identify as having a disorder.

Exploration and identification of autism, with or without the label of ASD, can provide insight into you or your child’s unique strengths and challenges, so that interventions and support can be personalised. It is crucial to find a qualified clinician who can take into account all the different factors, the most recent evidence and research, and make an assessment based on the specifics of you and your circumstances. The most helpful outcome of this process is that it can generate in-depth knowledge about you (or your child) so that you feel clearer about how you function best, and possible next steps.

Who can diagnose ASD in Australia?

In Australia, people who can diagnose ASD are:

  • Psychologists (this includes registered psychologists, clinical psychologists and clinical neuropsychologists)
  • Paediatricians
  • Psychiatrists

Whichever of the three professions they fall into, the assessing clinician should be appropriately registered by a professional body such as the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) to ensure that you are receiving the appropriate care. They should also have received specialised training in the provision of autism assessment and intervention, and it is a good idea to ask the assessing clinician if they have undertaken specialised training in this area.

Autism in childhood and adulthood: What is it, and what does an assessment for autism involve? / Sydney City Psychology

What does the identification / diagnostic process involve?

The assessment process may look slightly different depending on which professional makes the diagnosis, but should involve the following components:

  • Clinical interviews: The clinician should talk to you (or your child) in depth about your developmental, educational, medical, and mental health history.
  • Discussion about the person’s symptoms and strengths, and how these present in different areas and settings of everyday life (e.g., at school or work, at home, in social settings)
  • Administration and interpretation of standardised autism rating scales and assessment tools
  • Observer reports of the person’s symptoms and mental state: Asking someone else in the person’s life to provide their perception of the person’s symptoms and functioning (e.g., a parent, a teacher, friends, or your partner)
  • Consultation with your usual doctor or psychiatrist to get a more detailed medical history.

In addition to the above, the assessing clinician may also use other ways to collect relevant information for diagnosis, such as neuropsychological assessments (i.e, more in-depth tests of cognition, learning or attention) or classroom observations. It is ok to ask the clinician what information they are gathering, and why. Understanding this can help to make the process seem less overwhelming or confusing.

Autism in childhood

How would an autism assessment and diagnosis be helpful for my child?

If you think that your child might have autism, we strongly encourage you to seek answers as soon as possible. Here are some reasons why early identification of autism is encouraged:

  • In Australia, a diagnosis may give access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for support and funding
  • Your child’s school will have the information to make accommodations and modifications to facilitate your child’s learning and wellbeing
  • You will have a deeper understanding about how your child perceives and interacts with the world.
  • Your child will understand themselves better, and how they work best and what feels best for them.

Having a comprehensive assessment will also mean that, even if your child does not have autism, you will have a better understanding of the reasons behind your child’s challenges, and personalised recommendations for follow up to address whatever behaviors lead you to consider autism as a possible explanation in the first place.

Autism in childhood and adulthood: What is it, and what does an assessment for autism involve? / Sydney City Psychology

Autism in adulthood

As an adult, how would an autism assessment benefit me?

If you are an adult and you think you might have autism, going through an identification or diagnosis process is a personal choice. A formal diagnosis is not necessary unless you request it. For adults, here are some reasons why undertaking an autism assessment might be helpful to you:

  • In Australia, eligibility to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) for funding and support
  • Accessing accommodations and modifications from your educational institution or workplace
  • A deeper understanding of how you learn, and how you can communicate your challenges to others.

It is helpful for everyone to understand what autism is and the different ways it might present. If you suspect that you or your child may have autism, it can be empowering to find out more about the topic and to seek out skills and strategies that could help you identify your strengths, but also assist with areas of challenge. A formal diagnosis is not necessary, but there can be useful reasons to be assessed and formally diagnosed, especially for children. Early identification of autism can be beneficial for their academic and social progress, as well as provide access to funding in some cases to support the extra interventions that may be useful to you.

If you are interested in pursuing an autism assessment for you or your child, or have further questions, our Child and Family Clinic at Sydney City Psychology would love to hear from you. We provide personalised assessments for autism, ADHD, learning challenges, giftedness, and intellectual functioning. We also provide family therapy, child-parent therapy, parenting supports, and one-on-one psychology sessions with children. Get in touch today to find out how we can help you or your child. Our aim is to provide honest support – so you can live well. Email us at info@sydneycitypsychology.com.au or call (02) 9235 3127 to start the conversation.

Autism in childhood and adulthood: What is it, and what does an assessment for autism involve? / Sydney City Psychology