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 Module: Early Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorders


Communication of findings to parents is an essential part of early identification and diagnosis of ASD.  Parents are often the first to recognize that something is different in their child’s development. By the time surveillance and screening is conducted, some parents may have already had concerns about their child’s development. It is important to consider a parent’s perceptions when discussing with them your developmental concerns and questions about red flags for ASD. The direction of a conversation might progress differently with a parent who has already been wondering if their child is showing characteristics of ASD compared to a parent who has not considered the possibility.  For a parent with questions about their child’s development, a professional might start a conversation with recognition of the concerns followed by queries for more detailed descriptions. If a physician, child care provider, or other family member first notices the concerns, the conversation would start differently. The conversation might start with a statement of concern, such as, “I’ve noticed that your child isn’t showing an interest in what you are experiencing together. Have you noticed this?”

These scenarios create a context for those conversations (exchanges with families, rather than reporting to them) within which a diagnosis of ASD is delivered. It is important to choose language carefully and give a clear message about the findings. If further evaluation is recommended due to concerning screening results, say so. If a diagnostic assessment indicates the diagnosis of autism, say so. Concurrently, if a screening or diagnostic assessment indicates no concerns, it is equally important to assure parents that their child’s development is on track with typical development or to highlight concerns for future follow up.

Parents will have a range of emotional responses to new developmental or diagnostic information about their child. Following are a few tips for supporting parents when sharing difficult news.

Tips for Communicating Screening Results with Parents

  • Be honest, show empathy and avoid making judgments.
  • Listen carefully to parents’ questions, concerns and comments.
  • Consider developing a script that can be adapted for each family. For example to share screening results, you might say, “Your responses to the screening questions agreed with the concerns you shared with me about your child’s development. The results indicate that further evaluation is recommended.”
  • Consider adult learning strategies when delivering diagnostic findings. This means describe, use visuals, give examples, and demonstrate the information you are sharing.
  • Check for understanding of the information that is shared. Recognize that each parent will process and respond to information differently.
  • Consider how to help parents continue to see their child’s strengths and appreciate that their child is still the child they know and love even after diagnosis.
  • Recognize that it takes time and repetition for parents to understand the meaning and implications of a diagnosis of autism.
  • Have a concrete written plan for next steps to share with parents. Following a screening, this might be making a referral for a diagnostic assessment. Following a diagnosis, this might be making a follow up call or appointment to further discuss the understanding and implications of the diagnosis.
  • Provide parents with resources for obtaining additional information, services and supports (e.g., web sites, written materials, a phone number for a resource center).

This video webcast provides additional guidance on Sharing Screening Results with Families. http://www.waisman.wisc.edu/connections/webcast.php

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