Parents Can Help Doctors Detect Autism in their Toddlers

The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) has developed a questionnaire that parents can fill out to screen children as young as one year old for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). The university partnered with pediatricians in San Diego County. The doctors asked parents to fill out the questionnaire at their child’s 12 month well baby check-up to screen for language and other developmental delays.

Autism Spectrum Disorders include Autism Disorder which is considered classic autism, Asperger syndrome, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) which is considered atypical autism. These disorders are characterized as developmental disabilities which impair a person’s ability to communicate and interact socially. The severity of the impairment varies significantly from person to person.

One out of every 100 children in the United States is diagnosed with an ASD. The average patient is not diagnosed until around the age of five even though symptoms are present much earlier in childhood. Studies have shown that early intervention can greatly improve the severity of symptoms, leading to better development of communication and social skills in the long term.

Studies also show that parents express concerns about their child’s development long before they actually receive a diagnosis of ASD. In fact, most children are not diagnosed until after they start school. Most parents of children with ASD can cite symptoms in their kids at a very early age. Since early treatment is crucial, UCSD researchers wanted to find an earlier method of detection.

Their quest led them to develop a simple list of 24 questions called the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Profile Infant-Toddler Checklist.  The questions ask about the child’s emotions, eye contact, language, gestures, and other behaviors. In the UCSD study the checklist was given to 137 pediatricians who in turn used it to screen 10,479 one year olds. The results of the screening identified 32 children as having ASD. The screening accurately diagnosed ASD 75% of the time. All 32 children were referred for behavior therapy. An additional 89% of children found to have a language delay were also referred for therapy. The study has been published in the Journal of Pediatrics.

There is currently a screening checklist that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors give at a child’s two year well baby exam. More than 50% of pediatricians admitted they don’t screen for autism before age two. And, some feel that screening children so young may cause parents to worry unnecessarily. Despite those concerns, UCSD is hoping that their checklist will become the new standard of care.

It is important to remember that the checklist isn’t infallible. A 75% accuracy rate means that 1 out of every 4 children is misdiagnosed. The checklist is not meant to be administered by a worried parent, but instead should be evaluated by a physician.

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