Autism Misdiagnosis: Understanding the Challenges

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects social communication, behavior, and cognition. The symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) vary from mild to severe, and the condition can be challenging to diagnose, resulting in possible misdiagnoses.

The Diagnosis Challenge

Autism diagnosis relies on clinical observation and assessments by a range of medical and psychological professionals, including developmental pediatricians, psychologists, speech pathologists, and occupational therapists. However, different professionals approach diagnosis differently, relying on their preferred methods and criteria, which could result in varying diagnostic outcomes.

Moreover, the lack of a definitive biological marker for autism means that clinicians can only rely on behavioral observations and questionnaires. This challenge is compounded by the diagnostic overlap between autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

In some cases, clinicians may diagnose a child with ADHD or OCD, primarily if the child displays hyperactivity, impulsivity, or obsessive behaviors, overlooking underlying symptoms of autism. Similarly, some children with autism may receive a diagnosis of speech or language delay, lacking acknowledgment of social communication difficulties.

Consequences of Misdiagnosis

The misdiagnosis of autism can have significant consequences for the child and their family. Firstly, the child may miss out on early intervention services and support, which are critical in improving the child’s developmental outcomes. Early autism diagnosis provides access to early intervention, including therapies like speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and behavioral interventions, which can improve the child’s social communication and reduce challenging behaviors.

Moreover, misdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary medications or ineffective treatments for the child’s behavior or symptoms, which may not only be ineffective but may also cause undue side effects.

Additionally, misdiagnosis can impact the child’s academic and social life. Children with autism often have special education needs, and the misdiagnosed child may not receive the necessary accommodations and support, leading to academic inadequacies.

Misdiagnosis can also take an emotional toll on the child and their family. Parents of a misdiagnosed child may feel frustrated, confused, and powerless, especially if their child is not responding well to the recommended treatments. This can also impact the family’s financial resources if they have to pay for treatments and therapies that are not useful.

Reducing Misdiagnosis

Reducing autism misdiagnosis requires a concerted effort from both parents and health professionals. Parents must be aware of the early signs of autism and express their concerns to their child’s pediatrician. Early red flags of autism include:

  • Not responding to their name by age 12 months
  • Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months
  • Not playing “pretend” games by 18 months
  • Avoiding eye contact and preferring to be alone

These early symptoms may be subtle, and parents may not recognize them as significant. However, early intervention is crucial in improving the child’s developmental outcomes.

On the other hand, health professionals should receive training on how to diagnose autism accurately. The training should focus on using standard diagnostic tools and criteria to minimize the diagnostic variation between different professionals. Additionally, clinicians should be aware of the diagnostic differences between autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders to avoid misdiagnosis.

In conclusion, autism misdiagnosis is a significant challenge that affects the child, their family, and the healthcare system. However, parents and clinicians can work together to reduce misdiagnosis by early recognition of early autism symptoms and adherence to standard diagnostic criteria.


FAQs About Autism Misdiagnosis in Australia

1. What is autism misdiagnosis?

Autism misdiagnosis refers to a situation where a person who does not have autism is diagnosed with the disorder. This can occur due to various reasons, such as misinterpretation of symptoms, observing different behaviours, cultural and language differences, or co-morbidity with other conditions.

2. How common is autism misdiagnosis in Australia?

There is no precise data on the prevalence of autism misdiagnosis in Australia. However, studies suggest that misdiagnosis can occur in up to 30% of cases, and the rates may be even higher among children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This highlights the need for increased awareness and training among healthcare professionals to reduce the risk of misdiagnosis and ensure appropriate support and interventions.

3. What are the consequences of autism misdiagnosis?

Misdiagnosis can have significant consequences for individuals with autism and their families, including delays in accessing the appropriate support, increased stress and anxiety, and inappropriate treatments. Misdiagnosis can also lead to stigmatization and misunderstanding of autism, which can affect overall well-being and mental health. Therefore, it is essential to get an accurate diagnosis to ensure that the individual receives the right support and interventions for their specific needs.


1. Bradshaw, J., & Telethon Kids Institute. (2017). Autism misdiagnosis: Focus on girls. Retrieved from–events/news-and-events-home/2017/march/focus-on-girls/

2. Ozonoff, S., Dawson, G., & McPartland, J. C. (2017). A parent’s guide to autism: Answers to the most commonly asked questions about autism. New York: Guilford Publications.

3. Zwaigenbaum, L., Bauman, M. L., Stone, W. L., Yirmiya, N., Estes, A., Hansen, R. L., … & Levy, S. E. (2015). Early identification of autism spectrum disorder: Recommendations for practice and research. Pediatrics, 136(Supplement 1), S10-S40. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-3667C.