How is autism diagnosed?

Throughout April, which is Autism Awareness Month, Fox 5 News seeks to educate others on the challenges facing so many families today. How do professionals make a diagnosis? It is a scary, trying, and confusing time for parents. One family talks about their journey.

R.J. Garofalo, 3, has autism and is nonverbal. When his mom recalls the day he was diagnosed, it brings tears to her eyes. She says it was devastating.

Like most parents whose children have autism, Angela and Joe saw signs in their little boy before his first birthday. R.J. was not talking, not responding, and not listening to her voice, Angela says.

Joe says they brought him to different doctors, but a pediatrician won't give an autism diagnosis. Instead, he or she will refer you to a neurologist and in term a hearing specialist. The process can take six months or longer and can be confusing and overwhelming.

Dr. Catherine Lord of New York-Presbyterian's Center for Autism and the Developing Brain in White Plains points out no medical test exists to tell if a child has autism. You don't do a blood test or a brain scan.

She explains that a team of specialists can diagnose a child at the age of 2 after observing them for several hours in two or more sessions, playing and interacting with their parents. Dr. Lord has been treating R.J. since his diagnosis. She says early intervention is critical. R.J.'s progress has been dramatic over the past year, she says.

Joe says a year ago R.J. would just stare off, but now he laughs and plays. Angela says she doesn't worry for R.J. anymore. She says she isn't scared anymore -- she is hopeful.