To Label or Not to Label

Contributed by Jill Matson, CPNP, RN, Clinical Specialist & Navigator Manager

The preschool years are when diagnostic criteria are the most ‘gray’ for practitioners and families. Delineating play, behavior, communication, environmental factors, and other clinical issues can be complex. Parents often wonder why they ‘need’ an autism diagnosis if clinicians present with hesitancy during this period. One of the commonly used phrases during this period is “there are a lot of things that look like autism, and autism looks like a lot of things.”

A comprehensive assessment and diagnosis provides important information about the child’s behavior and development. It allows for identification of your child’s specific strengths and challenges. An assessment provides useful information about which needs and skills should be targeted for effective intervention.

A diagnosis is often needed to access autism-specific medical and educational services. Additionally, by going through the process of comprehensive assessment, individuals can be evaluated for other medical, genetic, developmental, and mental health problems that may also present in childhood.

Educational Eligibility
Assessment completed by the Multidisciplinary Evaluation Team (MET) of
your local school district to establish eligibility for school based services.

Medical Diagnosis
Assessment completed by a physician, psychologist, or team of clinicians to
obtain a medical diagnosis required by insurance providers to qualify for
outpatient autism therapies.

In the public school system we often refer to autism eligibility as a “ticket to services.” There is consensus among educators and clinicians regarding the benefits of early intervention. However, because autism is a lifelong disorder, many educators and clinicians are hesitant to apply the label. Prioritization should be placed on programs and services. If children are receiving adequate supports and services the educational eligibility and working diagnosis may not be as critical during early childhood.

Regardless of age at diagnosis, many autism assessments rely heavily on caregiver report and observations. Parents should be encouraged to spend equal amounts of time getting to know their child’s unique gifts and challenges as seeking resources and intervention.