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The Value of Neuropsychological Testing for Young Adults Navigating an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Diagnosis

Est. reading time: 7 mins
Posted Under: Interviews, Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW

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This post summarizes a continuing education event for mental health professionals hosted by The Dorm, featuring collaborators David Rowe, PhD of United Assessment and Allison Kleinman, LMSW, LCSW of Future Centered Care


For young adults navigating mental health and co-occuring disorders, social media has become a hub for finding information and connecting with a virtual community. Unfortunately, as clinicians we know this is not the best place to find reliable information. Research shows that most mental health information available in social media has not been provided by professionals, and misinformation or self-diagnosis may prolong the journey to recovery if a young adult isn’t getting the support they need. 

This is where we began our educational presentation for mental health care providers with Founder and Director of Neuropsychiatry at United Assessment, David Rowe, PhD, and Founder of Future Centered Care Allison Kleinman, LCSW, who joined us to share the value of comprehensive neuropsychological testing for young adults navigating complex mental health concerns, and how to use testing to help them create lives with purpose.

Key Article Takeaways: 

Comprehensive neuropsychological testing can help young adults identify the most effective treatment plans tailored to their unique needs

Neuropsychological testing involves cognitive testing, social-emotional testing, and testing for adaptive functioning. 

Testing can help neurodiverse clients identify the services they need for long-term care plans. 

Why is neuropsychological testing so important for young adults struggling with mental health and ASD?

Testing is an Antidote to Self-Diagnosis and Misinformation

To introduce the value of comprehensive neuropsychological testing, especially for young adults navigating a new or suspected Austism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, David Rowe, PhD of United Assessment initiates the presentation with a caution against self-diagnoses, which has skyrocketed in recent years as a result of the quantity of information about mental health diagnoses on platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

“It’s human nature to try to understand oneself, but as humans, it’s extremely difficult to discern good data from bad data,” he explains. “It’s very difficult to know what to believe. In terms of our field, we have voluminous evidence of self-diagnosis, misdiagnosis, over- and under-identification with disorders, and confusion. […] And it’s all made much more complicated by the biases that we all intrinsically carry.”

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In short, “the information we source is skewed, and our ability to interpret that information is flawed, and that is where assessment comes in – to try to provide clear, unbiased, focused, data.”

He goes on to emphasize that comprehensive developmental testing offers the data and insights that are critical for accurate diagnosis, and lead to improved treatment outcomes and enhanced quality of life.

An ASD Diagnosis in Young Adulthood Requires Targeted Testing

Young adults and their families often turn to developmental testing for the first time at this age, because this is a time when increased responsibility shines new light on executive dysfunction or mental health struggles that may have been masked in the past, says Dr. Rowe.

He also emphasizes the fact that ASD is not a monolith, and there are infinite variations in developmental differences and co-occurring disorders from individual to individual. He describes several specific tests that are used to screen for ASD in young adults and what they can help them understand about themselves.

Allison Kleinman, LCSW adds that for young adults who have already received a diagnosis for disorders like ASD, OCD, or other forms of neurodivergence, at age 21 many benefits that they may have had in school or other community networks fall away, which is why accurate diagnosis can help define and access services beyond adolescence.

 “Once you turn 21, we sometimes call it ‘falling off the cliff’ when it comes to resources. Suddenly families lose education, programming, services, funding—everything they got through IDEA (a service that supports youth with learning differences) goes away,” she explains. “The value of a comprehensive assessment in young adulthood is that as these support systems titrate down, families can better identify the new systems that they need to establish on their own.”

Families can also start making an effective long-term plan for their loved one with the guidance of quality testing, including if that requires intensive outpatient program (IOP) treatment for learning new skills or supportive housing solutions. 

Neuropsychological Differences May Have Been Underdiagnosed During the Pandemic

Dr. Rowe points out that testing is particularly important for the cohort of young people that were isolated from others during the pandemic. 

“The current emerging adult population lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. When school converted to a virtual format, they lost their opportunities for structured social engagement and they struggled to create their own.” 

He goes on to explain that the unfortunate consequence of this is that today’s young adults were very suddenly launched into new levels of responsibilities and experienced a much higher level of life demands that they may not have been prepared for.

Clients who had been struggling with neurological differences may have gone undiagnosed for a longer period of time when they weren’t exposed to the social and environmental stressors of in-person school and work. 

Testing Helps Young Adults with Self Acceptance and Find Community

Finally, Dr. Rowe adds that, “for young adults specifically, a proper diagnosis can be critical as they navigate the transition into adulthood. It can empower them to understand themselves better, advocate for their own needs, to access the supports and resources necessary for success… the results can be used instrumentally to foster self-acceptance and belonging within the neurodivergent community, a community that might better understand and respect them, which reduces stigma and promotes inclusion.”

What is involved in neuropsychological testing?

Dr. David Rowe explains that comprehensive neuropsychological testing involves standardized tests, observations, interviews, record reviews, and inventories – all to get a holistic picture of the client. The three main domains of developmental assessment are cognitive testing, social-emotional testing and testing for adaptive function.

Cognitive Testing

Cognitive testing includes tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) – the gold standard for cognitive testing. Cognitive testing measures general ability, which consists of verbal comprehension and perceptual reasoning, and cognitive proficiency, which consists of working memory and processing speed. It is able to determine whether the client’s presentation could be better explained by other disorders, such as intellectual disorders or language impairment, or perhaps be accompanied by those disorders.

Social-Emotional Testing

Social-emotional testing, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), measures language and communication, reciprocal social interaction, imagination, and stereotyped behaviors and restricted interests through a set of activities and tasks that can elicit social and communicative behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

Testing for Adaptive Function

Tests like the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales look for a client’s ability to perform tasks of daily living, such as communication, socialization and motor skills. This can offer a clearer picture of what types of support a client may need.

How does neuropsychological testing support families in creating customized care plans?

As Founder of Future Centered Care, Kleinman is an expert in interpreting developmental assessments into how they can apply to a client and their family’s everyday life within long-term treatment plans. 

To begin, Kleinman emphasizes that neurodiversity is not a problem that needs to be “fixed” or “cured,” it is simply a variation in the brain that requires a long-term care plan. Treatment should aim to help adults choose their own path and contribute to society in a way that is meaningful to them and their families. 

Unfortunately, Kleinman explains, this was not the prevalent perspective within the medical community in the past. Historically, those with neuropsychological differences would enter institutions, which “warehoused” tens of thousands of people, and later group homes, which, although a step up from institutions, also contained their own problems. 

Today we’re grateful to have treatment centers and organizations such as Future Centered Care to create open and accepting environments and sustainable support systems for clients to choose the services best suited for them and their families.

Testing Helps Identify Services

Quality developmental evaluations are key to the ability to offer the best resources for clients.

Assessments can provide background information, behavioral observations, and details on cognitive functioning and learning challenges, all of which can be used to find a treatment team that will know how best to be of support. In going through a neuropsychological evaluation, social workers can help clients identify local services such as: 

  • treatment programs
  • social and recreational programs
  • volunteering and employment opportunities
  • housing and group housing opportunities
  • staffing, and health and wellness opportunities

Kleinman explains, “when we look at an adult and understand who they are, what their strengths are, what their deficits are, we’re also thinking, ‘what are their resources?’” For instance, depending on a young adult’s evaluation, they could be eligible for resources such as social services and funding that may have gone undetected without a specific diagnosis. 

View or listen to the full presentation on YouTube, including a dynamic Q+A session with our professional audience.

Neuropsychological Testing & Treatment at The Dorm

At The Dorm, one-third of our client population is diagnosed with ASD, and receive individualized treatment services to improve independent functioning. We work with consultant psychiatrists and neuropsych/psychodiagnostic experts familiar with our treatment model and fully integrated with our team, approach and process. 

Dr. David Rowe is The Dorm’s long-standing neuropsych/psychodiagnostic consultant, as well as the director of neuropsychology at United Assessment, one of the country’s most proficient and well-respected providers of quality testing. Like all of our consultants, he meets with our team weekly to ensure that testing is seamlessly integrated into the treatment process. 

In closing, many thanks to Dr. David Rowe and Allison Kleinman, LCSW for their insightful presentation on the importance of neuropsychological assessment in young adults, and for their emphatic reminder that neurodiverse clients, especially young adults, should always be able to understand and receive the care that they need. 

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