Armchair Autism Diagnosis

Updated on January 3, 2017
Theresa Franklin profile image

My professional background is in special education, behavior management, and school administration. I am also a published author.

Armchair Quarterbacks

Armchair What?

You've heard of armchair quarterbacks—those people who sit in their chairs yelling at the team on television. These out-of-shape non-athletes haven't played football since high school and have never stepped on a college or professional practice field. They probably wouldn't make it through the practice. However, they think they're experts when it comes to determining the plays for the professionals on television.

Sadly, there are nonprofessionals who know nothing about autism—but believe they are experts at identifying and labeling kids as autistic based on observation alone. This is a dangerous and damaging practice that needs to stop. It is irresponsible, and it serves no one except the misguided person diagnosing a child based on nonprofessional observations.

What Is Autism?

If you ask ten people to define autism, you will receive at least seven different answers. The people that can't define it, however, believe they can recognize it when they see it. The truth is that autism is a medical disorder with specific characteristics and behaviors. No two individuals are exactly alike or show the same behaviors.

Autism Speaks is an organization dedicated to providing information about this condition. Their website defines autism this way:

"Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors."

Children with autism spectrum disorder often don't interact with peers.
Children with autism spectrum disorder often don't interact with peers.

Characteristics of Autism

These are just a few of the characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorder.

  • Children with autism typically become fixated on a few toys or personal items. They can spend hours playing with something that would bore others in a few minutes. They also like to sort their toys and can become very upset when the items are moved.
  • They have difficulty interacting with other children or adults. Some prefer to play or sit quietly alone. They may or may not answer a question. At times it will appear as if they didn't hear the question or statement. They seem to be completely oblivious to their surroundings.
  • They can be very sensitive to noise. What seems like a normal volume to you, may be excruciatingly loud to them. Some will cover their ears in an attempt to lessen the noise level.
  • Children with autism don't cope with change very well. They prefer strict daily routines.
  • They prefer to play alone and don't interact with peers.
  • Repetitive behavior as well as repetitive movements are often displayed.
  • Delay in language development is typical. Speech patterns may be stilted or robotic. Often phrases are verbalized with no intent to communicate.

Spectrum Defined

A rainbow is a spectrum of colors. If you look closely, you can see where one color blends into the next before the colors separate into individual vivid hues. A prism displays a spectrum of colors when held to a light.

However, a spectrum for classification is a tool used to determine the intensity of something being measured. The dictionary defines spectrum as: "used to classify something, or suggest that it can be classified, in terms of its position on a scale between two extreme or opposite points." Examples of spectrum are thermometers and number lines,

A spectrum is a way to measure where something is between two opposite points. A political spectrum measures how conservative or liberal a candidate may be.

The autism spectrum identifies how impaired the individual is and how much the disorder will affect his or her life. The spectrum ranges from low to severe.


Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is diagnosed by a multi-disciplinary team. It requires each qualified person to evaluate the child in their field of expertise. The reports are gathered and compared. Each knowledgeable diagnostician must agree that the child meets the criteria for autism spectrum disorder in the area they evaluated.

No one person can diagnose autism. No matter how many degrees the professional holds, he or she can only evaluate in their trained field. It is a team of professionals that determine where a child is on the autism spectrum.

Who Is on the Autism Spectrum?

Look at the characteristics of autism closely. There are some behaviors that we all exhibit. We call them habits, tendencies, or idiosyncrasies.

Examples of Speech Patterns:

  • Clearing throat before speaking.
  • Using 'um' often.
  • Using 'okay' often.

Examples of Repetitive Behaviors:

  • Curling hair around a finger.
  • Jingling keys in pocket.
  • Crossing arms in front of body.

Examples of Consistency

  • Must have coffee first thing in the morning.
  • Table must be set in specific manner.
  • Wearing certain outfits on specific days of the week.
  • Sitting in the same pew at church every Sunday.

Now examine yourself. Do you have any behaviors that could place you on the spectrum? Most people would have to answer 'yes.' Every person has characteristics shared by children on the autism spectrum. The difference is the spectrum. How many of those behaviors do you possess? How much do these behaviors impede your life?

Autism spectrum disorder is not measured by the characteristics, but by how much those behaviors impede the life of the child. Labeling a child 'autistic' based on behaviors observed is irresponsible and shows a lack of knowledge about the child and the disorder.

Professional Frustration

Considering the number of professionals required for a diagnosis of autism and noting the number of years these specialists studied autism, one can surely understand the frustration they experience when one layperson adamantly labels a child 'autistic.' Even being the parent of a child with autism doesn't qualify a person to diagnose another child.

If a child coughed and a layperson announced that the child had tuberculosis, we would be outraged. Yet, the diagnosis of autism is thrown around in our country as if it were popcorn. How can people inflict pain on an innocent child and their parents by using labels they know nothing about? There are very few things more malicious than inflicting pain on a parent through their child.

Please Speak Responsibly

Autism spectrum disorder is a serious condition that needs to be treated with knowledge, understanding, and respect. It should be diagnosed by a team of trained professionals working together to determine if the child meets the criteria and to what degree does it impair his life. Even one member of this highly skilled professional team cannot diagnosis the child alone.

There are checklists for parents to screen their child and discuss the results with their pediatrician. The pediatrician may use a different screening instrument for more information. However, remember these are screening instruments, not standardized tests. No one should make a diagnosis from a screening.

Many children exhibit behaviors that mimic autism, yet they are not on the autism spectrum. Please remember that a behavior alone doesn't determine a diagnosis. It is the degree in which the behavior impairs the child's life that determines the diagnosis.

Let's be responsible in our speech. When we see children exhibiting characteristics of autism, refrain from judgement. Also, refrain from using medical terminology without the knowledge to explain it. Most of all, be kind, intelligent, and responsible enough to avoid labeling a child autistic based on observations alone.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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