The autism assessment process can feel overwhelming to many families — particularly families whose children are just entering the special education system. Families are likely familiar with an initial diagnostic assessment, but some may be surprised to learn that assessment is not a one-time event. In fact, assessments continue throughout your child’s time in school.
With multiple kinds of assessments happening on multiple timelines, it can be challenging to understand and keep track of the purposes of each one and the differences among them. This post will help you understand the different kinds of autism assessments and learn how to make the most of the assessment process.
What is assessment for?
Most generally, an assessment involves gathering information about a child’s strengths and challenges in order to inform educational and intervention decision-making. To collect this information accurately and thoroughly, the professionals who conduct assessments may use surveys, interviews, questionnaires, observations, or standardized measures — or, often, a combination of these tools.
While we often experience assessments as isolated appointments or tasks, it is more useful to think of assessment as a continuous process. Assessment needs to be ongoing because assessments are used to guide decision-making. As professionals implement new strategies and work toward specific goals, they will need to assess your child again in order to determine whether these strategies are working for your child and enabling them to reach the goals they are aiming for.
Before an assessment can begin, it is critical to determine the purpose of the assessment. For example, are teachers developing your child’s first IEP? Is your longtime speech pathologist considering using a new intervention? Having a purpose enables the professional to know what information they are looking for and consider what measurement tools will help them discover that information. Then, with a clear purpose in mind, the professional can use the child’s characteristics to guide the selection of appropriate assessment measures. The infographic below breaks down the different kinds of autism assessments and their specific purposes.
The Initial Assessment
A formal diagnostic assessment is the first type of assessment the majority of families and children will encounter. If you have already been through the initial assessment for diagnosis, you know that it is a detailed process that can provide a lot of information about your child and their strengths and challenges. Importantly, this assessment does more than just provide a diagnosis. The information that you learn during this assessment should form a baseline understanding of your child’s abilities. It is important to find that baseline because it helps you and the professionals who work with your child determine what educational, behavioral, or social goals may be most appropriate for your child. Interventions are then designed to help your child progress toward those goals. Additionally, professionals will be able to compare future assessments to this one in order to assess your child’s progress.
For those who have not already been through the initial assessment process, a clinician or team will use various tools to determine if your child meets the criteria for an autism diagnosis. These tools will likely include interviews with you and your child, observations of your child, and standardized measures, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and/or the Autism Diagnostic Interview, Revised (ADI-R). This first step can often be overwhelming for you and your child because of the amount of time, the number of professionals, and the amount of information required. If you and your child are just beginning this journey and feeling overwhelmed, know that you are not alone in this feeling, and remember that on the other side of the process awaits a wide range of services, resources, and supports for your family.
Over time, re-evaluation assessments that evaluate and monitor your child’s progress will help form an evolving understanding of your child’s unique strengths, challenges, and progress. Typically, re-evaluation assessments are more targeted to specific skill sets, whereas an initial assessment must be more broad in order to gather enough information to support a diagnosis.
For families of autistic children and the professionals who work with them, it is essential to continue monitoring the child’s progress toward their goals. Re-evaluation helps you and the professionals who work with your child to better understand your child’s current skills and challenges, review and revise their goals, and consider the effects of current or new interventions.
Because of these benefits, re-evaluation assessments are a mandatory part of the special education system. Re-evaluations for special education services are typically conducted during the IEP review process every 3 years, but they can be conducted sooner on the recommendation of parents or your child’s educational staff or IEP team.
Assessments of Specific Skills or Characteristics
A third type of assessment is used in order to measure your child’s specific skills or behaviors and how they are changing. These kinds of assessments differ from initial assessments and re-evaluation assessments in significant ways. They are even more targeted than re-evaluations, and they are individualized based on your child’s needs. Additionally, unlike initial assessments and re-evaluations, they do not occur on a fixed or mandated schedule.
These specific assessments often fall within categories of skills and behaviors, such as speech and language abilities, daily or independent living skills, psychological or emotional well-being, or social skills. They are conducted in order to answer a specific question related to a specific intervention, educational placement, or learning goal.
These assessments may be scheduled on a regular, recurring basis or only occasionally, as needed. The need and frequency is something determined by you, your child’s school, or other professionals (such as behavioral specialists or occupational therapists) who are working with your child.
Although assessment is a continuous process that is often complex, it is important to remember that each kind of assessment has a specific and valuable purpose. The information from these assessments enables the professionals working with your child to develop individualized goals and interventions, and it allows you to better understand your child’s strengths, challenges, needs, and goals.
To learn more about autism assessment, download OAR’s free resource A Parent’s Guide to Assessment.