teen boy studying
This post is just scratching the surface about Autism and what a diagnosis of Autism means in a clinical context. Stay tuned for a future post about why it may be helpful to test for, and have a diagnosis of Autism, and what supports might be helpful for an Autistic individual. 
Is it Autistic person or person with Autism Spectrum Disorder?

A quick note about language here. Society has largely adopted “person first” language as being politically correct. Here, that would be “person with Autism Spectrum Disorder” or “person with Autism.” Many doctors have also been trained this way. Many Autistic people though prefer “Autistic person” or “Autistic brain.” I am using the latter, because an Autistic person’s right to dictate how other people refer to them is important to me.

What is Autism?

Autism is a difference in thinking and perception. People with Autistic brains process the world differently than non-Autistic brains (aka “neurotypical”), primarily related to social and sensory experiences. The word differently is extremely important here. Although it is a clinical diagnosis and considered a disability, the Autistic brain is an equally valid way of being in the world.
Who can make a diagnosis of Autism?

A diagnosis of Autism is made by a clinical psychologist, developmental behavioral pediatrician, or a multidisciplinary team (including a clinical psychologist, speech/language pathologist, occupational therapist and/or developmental pediatrician).  An educational classification, as is sometimes given in an IEP, is not the same as a medical diagnosis.

How do you test for Autism?

Testing will likely include a number of components, including:
  • An assessment of cognitive functioning
  • An assessment of adaptive functioning (i.e., the individual’s ability to complete everyday tasks and their ability to participate meaningfully in school or in their community)
  • Direct assessment or observation of social communication and interaction skills and processing of sensory stimuli (through opportunities to engage in reciprocal social conversations, use nonverbal communication, initiate and maintain interactions, and demonstrate creativity)
  • An evaluation of language skills
  • A thorough developmental history and understanding of how and when differences arose, and
  • The self-report of the individual

The important thing is establishing patterns across all of the tools used.

What are the symptoms of Autism?

Symptoms of Autism are categorized into two main areas in the manual clinicians use make mental health diagnoses: social communication and interaction, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

Social communication and interaction gets at:
  • The way in which we ask and answer questions
  • Our use of gestures to explain something or enhance our communication
  • How we greet people
  • How we get someone’s attention, or share about our interests
  • The way we make and maintain friendships
  • The way we play with and engage with others and 
  • How tiring social interactions and situations are for us

​Which for an Autistic brain can look like: 
  • Communicating without gestures and eye contact
  • Giving eye contact, but it feels painful
  • Talking easily about preferred topics and more effortfully or not at all about non-preferred topics
  • A preference for spending time alone or with with one or two others or difficulty making and maintaining friendships
  • Feeling extremely drained by social demands and needing recovery time
  • Preference for communicating online, via text, or sometimes in written form 
  • Not communicating verbally at all

Restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests gets at:
  • How we regulate our bodies
  • What different sensory input feels like in our bodies
  • How we like to spend our time 
  • How we think about things and interpret things like joking, metaphors, and figures or speech

Which for the Autistic brain can look like:
  • Seeking sensory input like pressure or tight hugs or attempting to manage sensory input by reducing sensory demands (e.g., using headphones)
  • Areas of passionate interest that can result in an extremely impressive knowledge fund
  • A tendency to take things more literally, or to focus on details
  • Preference for routines and consistency, which can increase feelings of safety
  • A strong inner moral compass or sense of justice, fairness, or human rights

​This is a great resource for a description of Autism and how Autism can look across the population: https://autisticadvocacy.org/about-asan/about-autism/


​Dr. Danielle Mohr is a licensed psychologist at Wolff Child Psychology. She specializes in comprehensive evaluations for children, teens, and young adults, and she conducts regular individual and family sessions.

What is Autism?
Scroll to top