Demystifying Autism Assessment: Understanding Diagnostic Criteria and Navigating the Pathways  

Embarking on the journey of an autism assessment can be a significant step, whether for yourself or a loved one. In this blog post, we will break down the diagnostic criteria for autism, explore the pathways to a diagnosis, and shed light on your right to choose a healthcare provider. Our aim is to provide clarity and empowerment for those considering an autism assessment.  

Understanding autism and the process of diagnosis is crucial. Autism is a complex and diverse neurodevelopmental condition, and getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step toward obtaining the support and understanding you need.  

Diagnostic criteria are essential guidelines that healthcare professionals use to determine whether someone has a specific health condition, such as autism. In the world of autism diagnosis, two primary tools are used: the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and the ICD-10 (International Classification of Diseases).  

  • The DSM-5: This is a widely recognised tool used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental health conditions. It provides specific criteria for diagnosing various mental health disorders.  
  • The ICD-10: This global medical classification system, developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), is used for coding diseases and health-related information.  

The official diagnostic criteria for autism, as outlined in the DSM-5, can seem complex. They include the following key components:  

  • Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction: This involves difficulties in starting and maintaining conversations, sharing emotions and interests, and responding to social cues.  
  • Restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities: These may manifest as repetitive movements, insistence on sameness, or highly fixated interests.  
  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period: While some symptoms may not fully manifest until later in life, they should cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.  
  • These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay.  

Breaking down the official rules into simpler words:  

  • Social Stuff Can Be Tricky: Autistic individuals might find social things a bit challenging. Like understanding when it’s their turn to talk, making and keeping friends, and knowing how to act in different social situations.  
  • Repeat Actions and Strong Interests: Sometimes, we like to do the same things over and over. It’s also common for us to have really strong interests in specific topics. It’s like when you have a favourite book or game, but it’s even more intense for us.  
  • Love Routines and Get Upset by Change: We often prefer having routines or plans that stay the same. When things change, it can make us feel really upset or uncomfortable.  
  • Super Passionate About Some Stuff: We can be very passionate about certain things. It’s like having a hobby or interest that we really, really love and want to learn everything about.  
  • Sensitive to Our Senses: Our senses can be a bit different. Sometimes, they’re super sensitive, like when a sound is too loud or a light is too bright. Other times, we might not notice things as much as other people do.  


So, in simple words, we might find social stuff tricky, really like certain things, enjoy having routines, and our senses can be different. It’s just the way our minds work, and that’s okay!  


In recent times, we’ve shifted from saying “autism spectrum condition” to simply “Autism.” This change reflects the idea that autism isn’t just a linear spectrum with different levels; it’s much more complex.  

Imagine it as a “circular spectrum” – a spectrum that encompasses a wide range of unique experiences and characteristics within the autistic community. Each individual’s autism represents a distinct point on this circular spectrum, forming a rich and diverse tapestry of experiences. It’s about embracing our differences and celebrating the distinctive ways in which each of us sees the world.  

Understanding the diagnostic pathway is crucial, as it’s like your roadmap to an official autism diagnosis. This journey consists of several essential steps:  

  • Recognising Signs: It all begins with recognising signs and possible indicators of autism. This is your starting point.  
  • Consulting with Your GP: Your general practitioner (GP) is often the first person you talk to about your concerns. They play a crucial role in this journey.  
  • Thorough Evaluation: You’ll go through a comprehensive assessment by healthcare professionals to determine whether you meet the criteria for an autism diagnosis.  
  • Getting Support: After diagnosis, you won’t be alone. You’ll receive valuable guidance and support to help manage your condition effectively.  
  • Specialist Evaluation: In some cases, your GP may refer you to a specialist for a more detailed assessment to ensure you receive the right help.  
  • Assessment Tools and Questionnaires: During this process, you might be asked to fill out various forms and answer questions to provide more information about yourself.  
  • Accessing Support and Ongoing Follow-Up: A diagnosis opens doors to support services and tailored interventions that can make a real difference in your life.  

It’s important to remember that being autistic is not a concern or something to worry about. It’s simply a different way of being. What can be concerning, though, is the impact of neurodiverse individuals trying to fit into a neurotypical world by masking their true selves. This effort to blend in can lead to anxiety, depression, and sensory challenges. It’s crucial to recognise and support neurodiversity and allow individuals to be themselves without the need to mask or pretend to be someone they’re not.  


In England, individuals have the right to choose their healthcare provider when referred by their GP for an autism assessment. This empowers you to select a qualified provider that meets your needs.  

To exercise your right to choose as a patient, follow these steps:  

  • Download and complete the AQ50 form: This form is a crucial part of the process.  
  • Download a letter template: Add your details, including your email address, and address it to your GP.  
  • Take both the completed AQ50 form and the letter to your GP: Request to be referred under the NHS Right to Choose if your GP agrees that an ASD assessment is appropriate.  

Obtaining an autism assessment is a significant step in understanding and managing autism. By understanding the diagnostic criteria, pathways to diagnosis, and your right to choose, you can make informed decisions about your healthcare.  

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