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What happens during an autism assessment?

  • A Priory expert explains why parents should seek an assessment for a child they suspect has autism as soon as possible
  • Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg says the young person will “complete fun tasks”, which include “imaginative stories” as part of the assessment
  • A diagnosis often brings a sense of relief to young people and their families

If a parent thinks their child has autism, or an Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC), they often want to get an early assessment.

Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, says that around one in 84 people in the UK have autism. However, many parents are struggling to support young people who may have the condition but don’t yet have a formal diagnosis.

Her comments come as patients seeking  referral for autism from 10 out of 25 English health trusts are reported to be waiting an average of 137 days or more.[i]

Dr van Zwanenberg says it is important for the young person to be assessed as quickly as possible because it gives the young person an understanding of why they may feel different.

It also helps families and professionals.

A diagnosis could enable the young person to connect with others who might be facing similar challenges. It can also open the door to more specialist support.

Priory Healthcare runs hospitals and clinics which offer a speedy service for families who think their child might have autism - and a further service to help families understand the condition and manage it. Priory Wellbeing Centres offer flexible appointment times, so children do not need always need to be taken out of school for either their assessments, or their appointments after an autism diagnosis. 

Before an assessment is arranged, the young person might be asked to undertake a psychiatric assessment to rule out other conditions that could be mistaken for autism.

If the expert thinks the young person might have autism, an assessment will be arranged.

Dr van Zwanenberg explains that the young person will complete “fun tasks that test their imagination, their social skills and understanding of emotions among other things. They may have to make up an imaginative story or tell a story from a picture book. They are simple, fun tasks that are not marked as pass or fail.”

An expert will talk to parents to get a detailed developmental history of the young person. Dr van Zwanenberg says that this looks at many aspects including their “development, their social interaction with adults and young people, and whether they have routines and resistance to change.”

Dr van Zwanenberg, advises parents to review their child’s Personal Health Child Record (‘red book’), or any old school reports, before the assessment to jog their memory. Parents might find it useful to review old recordings of them.

An expert will create a follow-up plan that is personalised to the young person’s needs. It will include detailed ideas about how their family, school and other organisations can better support them. It could also recommend follow-up meetings with specialist clinicians to help improve the young person’s skills and personal development in identified areas.

Dr van Zwanenberg says that she has “never seen a family regret having clarity regarding the issues their child has struggled with. All have found it a relief and helpful. Life tends to get better the more understanding everyone has of a young person.”

Parents often feel more positive about their parenting abilities, as they can understand the difficulties in the context of diagnosed conditions, and not feel guilty about things that might have gone less well than anticipated.

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