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Autism - How do doctors diagnose autism?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

It may be hard to work out the diagnosis of autism. Your doctor will look for signs of autism in the way your child behaves and how they have developed.

You may think that the name for your child's problems doesn't matter. This may be especially so if your child gets upset by seeing doctors or being examined.

But if your child has autism, they need the care and treatment that suits them. And the sooner, the better. So it's important to get autism diagnosed properly and early on.

This is done by a health professional who specialises in autism, usually a doctor.[60] But your child may have to see other professionals too before your doctor can make the diagnosis.

Signs of autism

The three main signs of autism that doctors look for in your child are:[61][62]

  • Having problems with speaking, as well as seeming to not understand what others are saying

  • Having problems getting on with people socially (for example, not looking people in the eye, not using facial expressions or body language, and not having many interests in common with other children)

  • Having problems with behaviour (for example, having only a few activities or interests, constantly doing actions over and over, and perhaps needing to have a strict routine all the time).

These problems usually start before the age of 3 years. So doctors can typically diagnose autism between the ages of 2 years and 3 years.[63] But they can look for signs earlier, especially if you notice something is wrong, or if you have another child who has autism.


Some reliable tests can help your doctor and other professionals tell whether your child has autism.

  • Your doctor will ask you, as the main carer, about your child. These questions focus on how your child behaves and has developed from birth. Your doctor takes notes on a special form.

  • Your doctor may spend time with your child, watching how they play and communicate, and checking how well they do certain things.[64] This should be done in a situation your child knows (for example, at school or playing a game they like). Your doctor may also test how your child does in a new situation, such as meeting new people or visiting a new place.

Your doctor may also do tests for the medical conditions that are linked to autism in a few children.[60][65] To learn more, see Medical causes of autism.

National Autism Plan

In the UK, experts have drawn up the National Autism Plan for children with this condition.[66] It helps health professionals:

  • Recognise autism

  • Examine your child

  • Meet with you regularly to talk about your child

  • Work out a plan for caring for your child

  • Work with other professionals

  • Make sure that preschool children can get the care they need (15 hours a week is recommended).

You can read more about this plan on the National Autistic Society website (

Last Updated: August 29, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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