Assessing Autism Spectrum Disorders: Guidelines for Parents and Educators (page 2)

By — Autism Society
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

What Should Be Included in the Assessment?

Autism spectrum disorders are classified as pervasive developmental disorders. This means that multiple areas of functioning are impacted. Due to the complex nature of ASDs, a comprehensive assessment that addresses a range of areas must be conducted by professionals with expertise across a number of fields. This is best accomplished through an interdisciplinary approach.

An interdisciplinary approach to assessment results in the strongest diagnostic and programming decisions. The word “interdisciplinary” is not interchangeable with the word “multidisciplinary.” While both approaches involve professionals from various fields, only in interdisciplinary assessment do professionals work in a truly collaborative manner to integrate information for diagnostic and programming decisions. In contrast, in a multidisciplinary approach, results are compiled, rather than integrated, and decisions are made with little collaboration.

Participants in interdisciplinary assessment teams should have expertise in their field as well as in ASDs. Assessment teams typically include a speech pathologist and a psychologist.

Based on the needs of the individual, additional team members may include a specialist in cognitive assessment, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist or a medical professional. Federal law mandates that autism spectrum assessments in the schools be conducted by professionals from multiple disciplines. In contrast, there is no such requirement in the private sector. In both the public schools and the private sector, assessments can range in quality (from a diagnosis jotted down on a prescription pad to a thorough interdisciplinary team assessment report). Parents and educators should ask questions about the approach being used. Another area to consider is the scope of the ASD assessment.

A comprehensive autism spectrum evaluation should include a developmental history, observations, direct interaction, a parent interview and an evaluation of functioning in the following areas: social, communication, sensory, emotional, cognitive and adaptive behavior. At times, additional assessments are indicated. For example, significant motor difficulties or suspicion of seizures require further evaluation. By gathering information across multiple areas, a complete diagnostic picture can be obtained. A thorough assessment helps parents and educators to make more comprehensive treatment decisions. The results of the ASD evaluation should be summarized in a written report and include specific and meaningful recommendations. The evaluation should be followed by a face-to-face feedback session with the opportunity for questions.


There are real benefits of early identification and treatment based on accurate and comprehensive assessment. In contrast, incomplete assessment results in a limited understanding of strengths and needs and, in turn, decreases the quality of care. Because of the importance of early identification, parents and educators should learn the signs of ASDs and refer for screening and assessment if symptoms are observed. Parents and educators may further advocate for children by seeking a comprehensive, interdisciplinary assessment completed by evaluators who are knowledgeable and experienced in assessing ASDs.

About the Authors

Ruth Aspy, Ph.D., and Barry G. Grossman, Ph.D., are licensed psychologists with the Ziggurat Group who specialize in assessment and intervention for individuals with ASDs. Together, they wrote The Ziggurat Model, a book on designing interventions for students with Asperger’s disorder and high-functioning autism.


Autism Society of America (n.d.). Diagnosis and Consultation. Retrieved July 17, 2007, from site/PageServer?pagename=about_whatis_diagnosis.

Filipek, P.A., et al. (2000). Practice parameter: Screening and diagnosis of autism: Report of the Quality Standards Subcommittee of the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society. Neurology, 55, 468-479.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) of 2004, PL 108–446, 20 USC §§ 1400 et seq.

Lord, C., & Spence, S. (2006). Autism spectrum disorders: Phenotype and diagnosis. In S. Moldin and J. Rubenstein (Eds.), Understanding autism: From basic neuroscience to treatment (pp. 1-23). New York: CRC Taylor and Francis.

Mandell, D.S., Ittenbach, R.F., Levy, S.E., & Pinto-Martin, J.A. (2006). Disparities in diagnoses received prior to a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Published online December 8, 2006.

Siklos, S., & Kerns, K.A. (2007). Assessing the diagnostic experiences of a small sample of parents of children with autism spectrum disorders. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 28, 9-22.

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