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Opinions on universal autism screening are split, but a new study shows it may be effective

Toddler blowing bubbles
AnneCN / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics pushed for all kids to be screened for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at their 18- and 24-month well child visit.

And according to a study released last week, ”Age of Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in an Ethnically Diverse Population Before and after the 2007 AAP Recommendation for Universal Screening,” kids with autism are now being diagnosed earlier, making it possible for them to be treated sooner.

Dr. Maria Valicenti-McDermott is lead author of the study. She said in a press release:

Our research shows that children evaluated before the AAP recommended universal pediatric screening were more likely to be diagnosed at an older age and with more severe autistic symptoms and more impaired adaptive functioning.

Researchers looked at two groups of children initially diagnosed with ASD between 2003 and 2012. Those born before 2005, because they would have been two years old when the AAP issued its recommendation, and kids born 2005 or later.

The average age for diagnosis for those born before 2005 was just under four years old. And for those born during or after 2005, it was about two-and-a-half years old.

The significant drop in age of diagnoses affected all ethnic groups, including Latino and African-American children. Factors including race and ethnicityare linked with later diagnoses, fewer concerns about possible symptoms of autism being expressed by families or asked about by providers, and possible worse overall outcomes.

But not everyone is supportive of the AAP's guideline recommendation.

In February, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force affirmed its position that too little is known about the benefits and harms of universal autism screening to endorse the practice.

Panel member Alex Kemper told NPR:

It's not a recommendation against screening. It's really a call for more research to be done around treatment for children identified through screening.

Dr. Valicenti-McDermott agrees that additional research is needed to confirm the effectiveness of universal autism screening, but stands by the AAP's recommendation.

She said in the release:

It remains unclear at this point whether the significant drop in average age of diagnosis we found was entirely the result of pediatrician universal screening or the effect of the national campaign to increase awareness of ASD in general and the importance of an early diagnosis in particular. But given the undisputed benefit of early identification of autism, sorting out the contribution of universal screening to this pattern will be an important next step to address the concerns of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the benefits of early screening.

Child development specialists are in favor of early screening and intervention, and say avoiding it could delay or deny crucial treatment.

Symptoms of autism often surface between 12 and 18 months. Research has shown kids who receive autism-appropriate education and support at key stages are more likely to gain essential social skills and react better in society.

And parents can learn early on how to help their child improve mentally, emotionally, and physically throughout the developmental stages.

According to Autism Speaks, a child may be at risk for an autism spectrum disorder if they exhibit any of the following red flags:

  • No big smiles or other warm, joyful expressions by six months or thereafter
  • No back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions by nine months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • No back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating) by 24 months
  • Any loss of speech, babbling or social skills at any age

A kid that shows any of these signs should be evaluated by a pediatrician or family doctor.
State of Opportunity has discussed thelack of training teachers feel they get in dealing with special education issues.

So it makes sense that we'd want to know as early as possible if a kid needs specialized education and treatment, so we can increase their chance to thrive.

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