A pediatrician commonly performs a preliminary investigation by taking developmental history and physically examining the child. If warranted, diagnosis and evaluations are conducted with help from ASD specialists, observing and assessing cognitive, communication, family, and other factors using standardized tools, and taking into account any associated medical conditions.A pediatric neuropsychologist is often asked to assess behavior and cognitive skills, both to aid diagnosis and to help recommend educational interventions. Adifferential diagnosis for ASD at this stage might also consider mental retardation, hearing impairment, and a specific language impairment such as Landau–Kleffner syndrome.The presence of autism can make it harder to diagnose coexisting psychiatric disorders such as depression.
Clinical genetics evaluations are often done once ASD is diagnosed, particularly when other symptoms already suggest a genetic cause. Although genetic technology allows clinical geneticists to link an estimated 40% of cases to genetic causes, consensus guidelines in the US and UK are limited to high-resolution chromosome and fragile X testing.Agenotype-first model of diagnosis has been proposed, which would routinely assess the genome's copy number variations. As new genetic tests are developed several ethical, legal, and social issues will emerge. Commercial availability of tests may precede adequate understanding of how to use test results, given the complexity of autism's genetics. Metabolic and neuroimaging tests are sometimes helpful, but are not routine.
ASD can sometimes be diagnosed by age 14 months, although diagnosis becomes increasingly stable over the first three years of life: for example, a one-year-old who meets diagnostic criteria for ASD is less likely than a three-year-old to continue to do so a few years later. In the UK the National Autism Plan for Children recommends at most 30 weeks from first concern to completed diagnosis and assessment, though few cases are handled that quickly in practice. A 2009 US study found the average age of formal ASD diagnosis was 5.7 years, far above recommendations, and that 27% of children remained undiagnosed at age 8 years. Although the symptoms of autism and ASD begin early in childhood, they are sometimes missed; years later, adults may seek diagnoses to help them or their friends and family understand themselves, to help their employers make adjustments, or in some locations to claim disability living allowances or other benefits.
Underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis are problems in marginal cases, and much of the recent increase in the number of reported ASD cases is likely due to changes in diagnostic practices. The increasing popularity of drug treatment options and the expansion of benefits has given providers incentives to diagnose ASD, resulting in some overdiagnosis of children with uncertain symptoms. Conversely, the cost of screening and diagnosis and the challenge of obtaining payment can inhibit or delay diagnosis. It is particularly hard to diagnose autism among the visually impaired, partly because some of its diagnostic criteria depend on vision, and partly because autistic symptoms overlap with those of common blindness syndromes or blindisms.