About Assessments for ADHD, Autism and Learning Disabilities

A lot of people call my office and have been told by a day care provider or teacher that they are sure their child has autism, Asperger's Disorder or ADHD. And often this is based on some list of symptoms that they read on the internet. Parents often then scramble and start looking themselves. Even adults do this, I get a fair number of adults who have wondered about possibly having autism after someone mentioned it to them and they began a web search.

Autism, ADHD, Asperger's disorder are not an easy diagnosis to make. And one of the important things that takes place when assessing a child, adolescent of adult for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is what we call a "differential diagnosis." The symptoms you may be concerned about may or may not be ASD. They could be another problem such as a language disorder, auditory processing disorder, a learning disability, some form of speech disorder, mental retardation, ADHD (both often confused with ASD), a movement disorder, OCD. The list goes on.

Additionally the disorder may be more than one thing. ASD is often found to be c-omorbid with another disorder such as ADHD. ADHD itself is not an easy disorder to diagnose. The Centre for ADHD/ADD Advocacy, Canada (CADDAC) has set standards for a full differential diagnosis of ADHD and it includes an extensive amount of data collection and takes a considerable amount of time. Another source of information on diagnosis ADHD is from Dr. Russell Barkley. His procedures are very similar to CADDAC and are the procedures I follow in my practice. As I mention below for autism diagnoses, you usually have one chance at an assessment and it should include all of the tests below except the ADOS and ADI-R. You need to know if there is a co-morbit learning disorder, and you need to understand exactly how ADHD is expressing itself in your child. While a neuropsychological examination is not necessary for a diagnosis, it is necessary if you want to know what to do about it. A very simple computer based test a medical doctor could offer you for a child 8 years old or over is the CNS-Vital Signs assessment which tells us about memory, ability to switch sets, executive functioning, processing speed and other critical bits of data we need to develop a treatment plan. Many of my patients are referred by medical doctors because they do not have the time or specific skills to make a firm diagnosis.

Here in British Columbia a full diagnostic autism assessment is usually completed by a provincial agency. This might take place at Children's Hospital or through a provincial health authority provider. You start this process with a referral from your medical provider. The Ministry for Children and Families has information about the assessment process on their web site. Those services should be free to anyone here in British Columbia. However, there is a long waiting list for these services. Private practitioners, including medical doctors and psychologists, who have had specialized training in the two instruments I'll talk about below, can also provide this service, however either you or your extended health care (if your lucky enough to have it) has to cover this cost. It's usually about $1,800 -$2,100. And for children under 6 an assessment needs to be completed by a team of professionals, hard to arrange through a private practitioner and even more expensive.

What does the assessment consist of? First, for most children and adolescents there is an initial interview history taking. Then, usually, a psycho-educational assessment is completed. This includes an intelligence (cognitive) test and an academic performance test. Usually these scores are compared to look for discrepancies that would lead us to finding a specific learning disability. If your child get X score on this part of the intelligence test, we would expect he or she would score Y on this part of the academic test. This testing also helps rule out mental retardation or other cognitive impairments. If you are going the private practitioner route, you might be lucky enough to have the school complete the psycho-educational assessment, cutting back your costs.

Next your child is usually examined for behavioural and personality issues. This might take place through interviews, pencil and paper tests or self reports like the Beck Youth Scales and reports from parents and teachers. The examiner wants to rule out personality disorders, psychosis, depression, anxiety and similar issues that can often be mistaken for ASD.

There might now be some specialized test that the examiner would use to look at an issue he or she is concerned with. And some examiners will do more complete neuropsychological tests to give us information on problems that might relate to executive function, memory and learning, impulse control, motor and visual-motor issues. This is especially important for children with co-morbid ADHD or for whom we find ADHD is the primary concern. This information helps us come up with focused treatment interventions.

Finally, for children we are still concerned about ASD with the provincial government here in British Columbia requires two specific tests: The Autism Diagnostic Observation System (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI-R). There are several other very good and reliable tests that focus on autism, however the ministry will only accept a report containing these two specific tests.

The ADOS is a series of activities and questions the examiner goes through with the child, giving him or her an opportunity to see how the child responds to new stimuli. The ADI-R is a lengthy report completed during an interview with the parents or other caregivers about the child's developmental history focused on symptoms found in ASD.

Some practitioners complete shorter reports using just the ADOS and ADI-R. This might be quicker but leaves us with doubts about other possible reasons for the behaviours of concern (not a real "differential" diagnosis) and provides little information we would be able to use to provide targeted interventions / treatment. And honestly, it's very difficult to obtain a second assessment to obtain this kind of essential information as there is a long waiting list of children and adolescents for initial evaluations.

To find a practitioner who can help you with an assessment I would start with my medical doctor, who may have a doctor of clinical psychology he or she knows and referrals to, or contact the British Columbia Psychological Association for a referral. You must, however, see a licensed or registered psychologist for these types of diagnostic services. Registered Clinical Counsellors (RCC) are not qualified to provide these services and often parents pay for assessments that are then not accepted by school districts or the ministry. School psychologists can only perform these tasks as part of their employment in the school district and are not qualified to do these types of assessments independently. (However, an RCC or school psychologist may ALSO be a licensed or registered psychologist, so ask,) Finally, before paying someone to complete any assessment, ask the agency you plan to use the assessment with (ministry or school) if this provider is qualified to provide such information to them.