Why is autism screening and assessment important?
While it’s important not to get caught up in labels, sometimes they do serve a function. Part of what labels do is they give us a roadmap to good treatment and interventions.
But we all know that autism is a spectrum, and there are different levels of severity. If we look at the different things that make up core processing differences in autism, both strengths and challenges, these can look different from person to person, but also within an individual's life.
At the end of the day, what we’re all trying to do is help an individual make sense of their own experience: to really start to understand their own identity, how they interact with the world, how they interact with themselves, and how they interact with other people. Then as professionals or parents, how can we go in and have the best understanding of the person we are working with so we can best support them?
Assessment is not just a means of getting to a label. We’re really getting to understand a person’s strengths and challenges, as well as ways these intersect.
We always want an assessment to look at the strengths of an individual. Some common strengths of autism include honesty, a desire to connect, a good memory, attention to detail, and a unique sense of humor. We want to make sure that we are really honing in on these things when we are doing a screening, a diagnostic interview, or talking to teachers.
We want to support the areas that can help individuals with autism meet their goals. We also want to think about harnessing their strengths. The neurodiversity movement gives us a nice framework for this kind of assessment. Developmental differences are a result of normal variations in the genome. They are not necessarily something wrong that needs to be fixed. There just are differences, and with these differences can come some challenges when we are in a largely neurotypical society.
Sometimes people are going to say, “Is this autism? Is this something else?” What we do know is a child is struggling, so how can we begin to understand their behaviors a little bit better from an assessment framework? In this regard, it can be helpful to find the function of a behavior. What is a person getting out of this behavior? What is maintaining their problematic behavior? This should be a collaborative process. It shouldn’t be the school or parents saying that behaviors are problematic. It’s really about the person who’s needing help. How are they saying this behavior is getting in the way of their life?
Sometimes what we need to do as part of this functional assessment is really help them connect the dots and tell them, “I keep on seeing this behavior, and it keeps on getting you into trouble with your friends. I'm really wondering if we should we try to figure this out. Should we be detectives?” This is crucially important. If we are thinking about strengths, we want to teach an individual that they can apply these skills. They can then apply the insight.
In the video below, see how experts Rebecca Sachs, PhD, ABPP, and Tamara Rosen, PhD, roleplay a strengths-based approach to autism assessment: