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Autism and the Healthcare System

If you are concerned that your child has symptoms or signs of an autistic spectrum disorder, ask your child’s healthcare provider for a referral to an autism specialist. Below are the definitions of an autism specialist and other healthcare providers that are involved in the assessment of children with autistic spectrum disorders.

Healthcare Providers

Throughout his or her treatment, your child may see many different professionals, and it can be difficult to understand how each person contributes to your child’s overall care. Here is a list of some specialists and how they may help your child:

Autism Specialist: a physician who may be a child neurologist, a developmental/behavioral pediatrician, or a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Child neurologists combine the special expertise in diagnosing and treating disorders of the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, muscles, nerves) with an understanding of medical disorders in childhood and the special needs of the child and his or her family and environment. Combine the special expertise in diagnosing and treating disorders of the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, muscles, nerves) with an understanding of medical disorders in childhood and the special needs of the child and his or her family and environment. Child neurologists treat children from birth into young adulthood. They choose to make the care of children the core of their medical practice.

All of the physicians in these specialties have specific training in the needs of children with autism spectrum disorders. You should discuss which type of autism specialist is right for your child with your child’s healthcare provider. At a minimum you should make sure that the professional to whom you are referred has experience diagnosing and caring for children with autism.

Developmental-behavioral pediatricians: a physician who possesses training and experience to consider, in their assessments and treatments, the medical and psychosocial aspects of children’s and adolescents’ developmental and behavioral problems. Developmental-behavioral pediatricians understand that children’s development and behavior happen first and foremost in the context of the family. They seek to understand the family’s view of the problem and the effect of the child’s problem on the family. Developmental-behavioral pediatricians advocate for their patients with developmental and behavioral problems by working closely with schools, preschools, and other agencies involved with developmental care and education.

Child and adolescent psychiatrists: a physician who specializes in the diagnosis and the treatment of disorders of thinking, feeling and/or behavior affecting children, adolescents, and their families. The child and adolescent psychiatrist uses knowledge of biological, psychological, and social factors in working with patients and their families.

Speech and language therapist: a therapist who evaluates your child’s use of language and provides direct therapy to alleviate any problems your child may have. These therapists can also help with improving a child’s non-verbal communication, play, and socialization skills. Many speech and language therapists use alternative communication strategies with children with ASDs, including use of photos, drawings, or other technologies to help them communicate.

Occupational therapist: a therapist who evaluates your child’s fine motor skills. Some occupational therapists also evaluate sensory sensitivities or differences that impact many children with ASDs (for example, being over or under sensitive to taste, touch, sounds, or sights). These professionals also provide direct therapy to help with these problems.

Physical therapist: a therapist who evaluates and treats children who have delays in use of large muscle groups involved in sitting, walking, or running. Delays in these areas are not typical of ASDs, but may occur on occasion.

Behavioral therapist: a therapist with specialized training to evaluate problem behaviors that your child may have and to help develop strategies to manage those behaviors.

Organizing Your Child's Medical Information

Your child may see many professionals and care providers. You may receive many evaluations, reports, laboratory results, and school assessments. It is important that you keep all of this information together in a folder or 3-ring binder. Keep a list of the names and contact information of all of the doctors and therapists that see your child.

Along with this medical information, you should keep a copy of your child’s Individual Family Service Plan (provided by Early Intervention for children less than 3 years old) or your child’s Individual Education Plan (provided by your child’s school). Review this information with your pediatrician or autism specialist to make sure that nothing has been overlooked or is missing. As a parent, you are your child’s best historian.

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