What is the Difference Between an Educational Diagnosis and a Medical Diagnosis of Autism?

Autism Diagnosis: what is it?

An Autism Diagnosis comes when a medical team or educational team identify a set of characteristics that meet the criteria required. There is an educational diagnosis of Autism and a medical diagnosis of Autism. These are not necessarily interchangeable. You can read more on Autism in my earlier posts here.

Now what? Who should parents take their child to see for an evaluation? Their doctor…then possibly a psychologist or Autism program for diagnosis, early intervention (ex CDSA), therapists (ex speech, OT), and/or their local school system.

It took me almost four years to get a medical Autism diagnosis. My son was 4 and I had begun in his infancy. It then took about 9 months (after already having an IEP as “developmentally delayed”) to get the correct identification within the school system. He’d already been tested…medically. If I had known the amount of expense and work it would take to get both of these done, I may have pushed for the school system to identify him correctly from the start (age 3).

Autism Medical Diagnosis

There are pros and cons to the medical model for Autism (author opinion).

Pros: access to funding, services, support for families, access to therapists with knowledge on specialized topics, such as Gestalt Language Processing.

Cons: lack of neurodiversity-affirming terminology, unclear statements about severity (in terms of what that truly means), and often not functional in the real world.

One thing I’ve found helpful: recognizing that the terms disease, disability, and disorder all carry different meanings.

A disease is something that the medical community works to cure.

A disorder is a difference in the mind or body.

A disability is the impact of that disorder on day to day living.

Using a medical model for your patient or child does not mean that you are trying to “cure” them. Remember, Autism is not a disease.

Let’s take a look at the medical criteria for a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (299.0), according to The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

Autism Educational Diagnosis

The information below is summarized from The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) surrounding the process and criteria for an educational placement under the category of “Autism”. This criteria may vary by state and the information listed below is specific to North Carolina.

Author special note/opinion: school systems, early intervention teams, business owners, medical professionals, and parents are all doing a fantastic job with what they have…and what they know. The biggest barriers for families are 1) the world we live in, 2) money. The school systems that are behind in this process are behind because they don’t have funding or staff to catch up and close the gap. The frustrated families trying to figure all of this out are likely exhausted and financially strapped. There is a disconnect between the medical and educational communities that contributes to this strain. It causes families to need to go through both of these processes separately, which is confusing and costly.

Handouts for Neurodiversity and Autism

You can find free handouts on Autism here.

For more information on Neurodiversity and pocket sized and full page handouts on a variety of topics, check here on TpT. You can now buy this handout set directly on this website here.

The majority of my content here comes from my social media account, where I regularly discuss navigating the neurodivergent world, both professionally and as a parent. Feel free to join me.


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My name is Elizabeth Hepler and I’ve been a practicing Speech-Language Pathologist since 2005.  I am the mother of four great kids. Our household is neurodiverse: ADHD, Autism, Gifted, and more!

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