Today is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, which raises the question: Is autism a mental health diagnosis?

When my daughter was diagnosed a dozen years ago, her developmental pediatrician referred to it as a neurodevelopmental disorder. Later I heard it described as “neurobiological”. Yet I was told there is no medical test for autism and that it was diagnosed based on observation of behavior. Still later, I read about autism as a psychiatric disorder and many of the therapies I researched were based in psychology.

Such is a parent’s quandary: Is anything about autism clear-cut?

In this case, the answer is that there are many ways of looking at and describing autism depending upon which lens you use to view this incredibly complex disorder.

Autism is a brain-based disorder with onset in childhood that affects a child’s development in the core areas of communication, social interactions and behavior. This is perhaps best captured in the term, neurodevelopmental disorder.

Diagnostic criteria for autism are found inThe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition-Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), which is published by the American Psychiatric Association. The DSM-IV-TR provides a common language and standard criteria for the classification of mental disorders.  Tools used to help a provider (both medical doctors and psychologists) make a diagnosis are typically clinical (e.g., patient observation and interview) and psychological (e.g., standardized psychological tests) in nature.

A child’s physical health may also be affected by conditions such as seizures, gastrointestinal distress, eating irregularities, sensory challenges, and sleep disturbance. These affect a child’s overall health and well-being and can be viewed as neurobiological.  When you get right down to it, our brain is most definitely part of our physiology, no different than other vital organs such as our heart and lungs.

So there you have it: the many terms used to describe this multi-faceted disorder continue to provide us with more questions than answers. For now, the diagnostic criteria for autism will continue to be described in the DSM and this disorder should be thought of as a condition that can be described and viewed many different ways.

As the DSM is currently being revised (DSM-5 is due out this month), also stay tuned for updates about changes to the current diagnostic criteria.

For more specific information about the diagnosis of autism, Autism Speaks offers The 100 Day Kit.