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First Steps


An autism spectrum disorder cannot be diagnosed using any type of medical test (blood, brain scan). Instead, it is diagnosed on the basis of assessment of the child’s development and behavior. Parents are most likely to receive an accurate diagnosis from a comprehensive evaluation done by an experienced professional. This assessment involves spending time with the child in both play and formal testing situations combined with careful interviewing of the parents regarding behaviors seen in other environments.

The behavioral characteristics of autism are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, Fifth Edition (DSM-V). A clinical psychologist and/or a medical doctor who has had training and experience in understanding autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities can make the initial diagnosis.

Unfortunately, it is common at most centers providing evaluations for there to be a wait before getting in to see a clinical psychologist. In the meantime, Autism Speaks has put together a list of “Five Things to Do While Waiting for an Autism Evaluation.”

Regional Center

The first step in beginning intervention is contacting the San Diego Regional Center. If your child is under 3 years old, contact the Early Start Intake Unit at 858-496-4318 to obtain assistance in finding out if your child is eligible for these services. A service coordinator will be assigned to plan for your and your child’s needed services and supports. An Individualized Family Service Plan is then developed in collaboration with your family and service providers.

Educational Assessment (3 yrs and older)

An educational assessment with a team of qualified professionals is needed to determine eligibility for special education and related services. An educator should be involved in the assessment to address the child’s educational needs. Visit or call the San Diego Office of Education at 858-292-3500 to access your local school district information and set up an appointment to determine eligibility.

Accessing Information and Support

Use this time as an opportunity to learn about the disorder and find support. We recommend choosing a good book and finding a support group. Experienced parents can provide resources, guidance and perspective. The San Diego Chapter of the Autism Society of America is also an excellent place to start.

Specialized support and resources are available for military families on the Autism Speaks military web page. In addition, military families can access the Military Family Autism Journey Guide which provides a comprehensive explanation of resources.

Organizing the Information

Many parents recommend starting a notebook to help organize information, assessment and treatment reports and medical tests. Keep items in chronological order. Bringing this notebook to appointments will help save time and avoid duplication of tests.

Taking Time for Yourself

Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Keep lines of communication open with your spouse and family. Go out and do something unrelated to autism. Ask for help and support when needed.