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Research finds that early autism screening has advanced, but concerns remain

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Research on autism spectrum disorder early intervention methods has raised concerns that current approaches are not enough to decrease the age of diagnosis and improve access to services, says Autism Speaks. A few approaches to the early detection of autism such as screening during routine doctors’ visits were evaluated to determine their impact on early diagnosis and the ability to access services.

The report was published online on Jan. 29, 2014, in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Autism symptoms can be accurately identified in children as young as 2 years old, but the average age of diagnosis and intervention continues to be when children more than 4 years old

Researchers reviewed 40 former studies on early detection programs for autism and 35 different intervention types. They say that a multi-pronged approach is needed to improve the early intervention that is crucial to enhancing the development of social, learning, and communication skills in autistic kids.

"The good news is that we found universal screening for autism risk to be feasible and practical," said lead author Amy Daniels, the Autism Speaks assistant director for public health research. "We also see that it seems to work best in the context of a toddler's well-child visits to a pediatrician or family doctor."

Screening children for autism is only the first step in early intervention, however. "We found a considerable lack of followup on what happens to children who score at high risk for developing autism," Dr. Daniels said. In some cases, children who were identified as being at risk for autism were not referred to a specialist for a full evaluation.

"We need to know why," said Dr. Daniels. "Are pediatricians advising parents to take a wait-and-see approach? If so, that's a concern because the sooner children get treatment the better their outcomes." There is currently a shortage of autism specialists who can perform diagnostic evaluations and appropriate therapy programs.

"Early screening is an important first step," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. "But without timely diagnostic follow through, this isn't enough to ensure that families are getting access to the quality intervention programs they want. Autism Speaks' researchers are working for families in this area by helping to understand the causes of these disconnects in order to avoid them in the future.

“ At the same time, we are redoubling our awareness and advocacy efforts to build service capacity in communities, states and nationwide. Our government representatives and public health agencies need to work with us to meet – head on – the needs of families with recently diagnosed children."

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