NOTE: This page presents an overview of the diagnostic process in British Columbia, Canada. For a more comprehensive view, see Autism Diagnosis in BC – Chapter 1 of ACT’s Autism Manual for BC (pdf).
If you are the parent of a child whom you suspect may have an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), your first stop is your family doctor. Family doctors cannot diagnose ASD in BC but they can refer you to a specialist (a pediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist) or directly to the BC Autism Assessment Network – BCAAN. This is a network of regionally-based diagnostic teams across BC funded by the Ministry of Health. For general information about the BCAAN see the PHSA’s Autism Services page.
If you would like more specific information about the BCAAN process and the assessment/diagnosis of children who may have autism, you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call the BCAAN Information Line at 604-453-8343. You can also find helpful information within the PHSA’s Frequently Asked Questions.
Unfortunately, there is no medical test for ASD. Diagnosing autism is complicated because it is based on a child’s behaviors not on the results of blood or genetic testing. However, parent concerns are shown by research to be a good indicator that a child is having significant problems. Usually it is the parents or close family members who first recognize that a child is showing atypical behavior.
- Autism Speaks has excellent resources at Learn the Signs.
- For visuals on Red Flags in young children with ASD, see Red Flags for Autism in Toddlers (pdf).
- An excellent, parent friendly, book on this topic is: “Does My Child Have Autism ? – A Parent’s Guide to Early Detection and Intervention in Autism Spectrum Disorders” written by Wendy Stone, PhD with Theresa Foy DiGeronimo, M.Ed., published by Josey-Bass, 2006.
- For a parent-friendly screening tool that has been validated by extensive research see the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers-Revised (M-CHAT-R™), a scientifically validated screening tool for children between 16 and 30 months of age that assesses risk for ASD.
Standards & Guidelines for the Assessment & Diagnosis of Young Children with ASD in British Columbia
Families in BC are fortunate that there are diagnostic standards that are clearly in line with the best of international research and practice. The BC Standards and Guidelines can be found in the Health Services ASD Standards (pdf). An important part of the guidelines are found in: Section 5.2 Surveillance and Screening. These guidelines are something that you can share with your family doctor as you are discussing whether a referral to BCAAN is a good idea. Your family doctor may know about them but they do have a great deal of information to keep current with and may appreciate you being proactive.
Some of the highlights of this section are:
- “Numerous studies have established that parental concerns about communication, development and behavior are highly sensitive and specific and should always receive serious consideration.”
- “It is critical that children with ASD be identified as early as possible. It is possible to identify and diagnose ASD by 3 years of age and some believe as early as the second year of life.”
- “Studies have demonstrated that most parents of children subsequently diagnosed with ASD first became concerned about their child’s development around 18 months of age.”
At times parents find it difficult to convince their family doctor that they have reason to be concerned. Research is clear that waiting to initiate a referral is not in the best interests of the child. ASD is invisible; affected children are frequently overlooked because they appear intelligent, healthy and attractive. Sometimes parents are told that they shouldn’t worry because their child is a boy or more than one language is spoken at home. These are not reasons for a child not developing typically.
Parents should be persistent in asking for a referral. List your concerns in writing. Bring copies of any supportive reports from other professionals, including teachers, speech pathologists or Infant Development Program Consultants. If this is not successful, consider finding a new family doctor who understands the need to address your worries in a timely manner.
Waiting times for BCAAN’s regional publicly funded teams vary from region to region and fluctuate across the year. There is a shortage of diagnosticians working in the area of autism across the province. Although priority is given to children under six, the current average time to receive a BCAAN diagnosis ranges from six months to one year.
It is possible for parents to pay for autism assessments privately, however, many of the more experienced private diagnosticians for autism also have waiting lists. Private assessments do vary in quality as currently there is no system for ensuring that all private practitioners are adhering to the BC Standards and Guidelines or using the diagnostics tools as they are meant to be used. In order for families to receive autism funding from MCFD, private clinicians need to use the same tests as are endorsed by the Standards and Guidelines.
It does happen that parents have a private assessment done but it does not meet the standards of a multi-disciplinary assessment as required by the Ministry for Children and Family Development. Rather than wasting money, it is a good idea to take a copy of the Standards and Guidelines for the Assessment and Diagnosis of Young Children with ASD in BC (pdf) when visiting a prospective diagnostician to make sure they are able to do what is required.
As of July 1, 2017, the Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD) has taken over responsibility for individualized information, support and referral services for families in B.C.
If you have questions about diagnosis, please contact:
Autism Information Service British Columbia (AIS BC)
3688 Cessna Drive, Richmond, British Columbia, V7B 1C7
Toll Free Line: 1-844-878-4700
Email – Info: AutismInformation@gov.bc.ca
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