Psychologists work in a range of areas, with some of them specialising in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of children who have developmental disorders. In the case of a child who appears to have ASD, psychologists determine if the child meets criteria for a diagnosis of ASD. If the child is diagnosed as having the disorder, psychologists provide interventions including ways to assist children to better manage their feelings and behaviour and to interact more appropriately socially, both at home and outside the home.

When should a child see a psychologist?
Parents should seek help from a psychologist if they are concerned about their child’s behavior or general development, including the child’s communication and interaction with others. A psychologist can help by looking at the child’s abilities and behaviour and comparing these with what is expected for other children of his or her age.

What role do parents, family and carers play in the work of a psychologist?
A psychologist will want to speak to parents and other carers to gain a good understanding of the child’s development, personality, and behaviour. This will involveobtaining background information about the child since birth as well as current information. Parents or carers also play an important role in treatment by working with the psychologist to apply strategies
to help their child acquire and develop skills in the home and other settings.

What would an assessment involve?
Psychologists assess children for ASD by gathering detailed information about a child’s development from infancy, including behaviour in a range of settings. Assessment involves interviews with a child’s parent(s), family members, and other significant people such as teachers or child care workers in order to gather all appropriate information. In talking with these people and observing the child in different settings, psychologists look at a range of different abilities and behaviours. These include how the child:
• interacts with adults and children,
• communicates with others,
• responds emotionally, and
• plays;
and whether the child:
• shows unexpected distress, anxiety, or fears - particularly in response to changes in routine,
• has an unusual or narrow range of interests or play activities, and
• shows unusual or inappropriate behaviour, such as repetitive body movements or mannerisms like rocking or hand flapping.

Psychologists usually also perform additional assessment to gain a better understanding of a child’s intellectual abilities and adaptive functioning, such as their self-care skills and their ability to respond appropriately to everyday situations.

Psychologists consider all the information gathered to decide whether a child meets the diagnostic criteria for ASD, whether a different diagnosis is appropriate, or whether further assessment is required. A report will be prepared and sent to the parents or carers and to the child’s referring paediatrician or child psychiatrist who will consider all information from the multidisciplinary assessment team to confirm a diagnosis.

What happens next?
If a diagnosis of ASD is made, the psychologist will provide further information about the diagnosis, related support services, and strategies to assist the child’s learning and development. Because children with ASD can vary greatly in their behaviour and skills, a psychologist will develop a tailored intervention program and work with parents or carer to meet a child’s specific needs and help that child to overcome identified difficulties. Alternatively, following a diagnosis the psychologist may make recommendations for intervention and refer the child to appropriate intervention services. This may involve referral to early intervention programs or school support services that are designed to provide interventions for children with ASD. It is important to remember that treatmenof a child with ASD will lead to better long term outcomes if the child receives intervention at an early age. Therefore, it is important that parents and carers follow up on their concerns.

Psychological interventions may include teaching the child to develop:
• a better understanding of the behavior and communication of others;
• strategies for managing emotions such as anger; and
• skills for socialising with children and adults including appropriate interaction and conversation skills.

Psychologists also provide family- and school-based interventions, focusing on providing parents, carers, and teachers with strategies to assist the child. Often psychologists will work jointly with speech pathologists and occupational therapists in relation to some of these areas of development. Another important part of a psychologist’s work is to help children with ASD to manage their anxiety levels.

State/Territory autism associations
Allied health providers
Useful links