Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and autism are both names for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders present in different ways depending on the person but almost always include difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Autism appears to have its roots in very early brain development, but signs are not usually apparent to caregivers and parents until a child is 2 or 3 years old.
The timing of a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder is significant and a recent study shows that children diagnosed before the age of 4 are more likely to get effective, evidence-based treatment, such as behavioral therapy. Like many cognitive issues, the younger a child is when interventions are started, the more successful they will be in treating the disorder and accompanying difficulties
Research published recently led by Katharine Zuckerman, M.D., M.P.H., at Oregon Health and Science University, in Portland, looked at 722 children ages 6 to 11 with an autism spectrum disorder. They compiled data on the use of health services, including behavioral intervention therapy, school-based therapy (including social skills training, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or speech and language therapy), complementary and alternative medicine such as diet changes and supplemental vitamins and psychotropic medications that treat depression, anxiety and ADHD.
The study noted that while parents normally brought their concerns over developmental issues and other factors to the attention of a health care provider around the age of 2, the average age of an ASD diagnosis was just over 4 years old. The study also showed a correlation between a time lapse of more than two years between the first conversation with their child’s doctor and the use of alternative medicine and treatments. These therapies such as restricted diets, nutritional supplements and other therapies are seen as controversial by many medical practitioners and parents using them were more likely to delay seeking traditional treatments.
Most of the research on ASDs points to early intervention and behavioral therapy as the best way to reduce some of the more troubling symptoms of autism such as social skills, rigid and inflexible attitudes and routines and self-stimulating behaviors like hand flapping and rocking. The team in Oregon said the results of their data collection show that the sooner a child can be evaluated for autism, the better the outcome will be for that child.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for autism at 18 months and at 24 months, but only about half of pediatricians conduct these kinds of screenings. In an interview with The Oregonian, Dr. Zuckerman stated, “The problem is, in the U.S., kids just aren't getting screened. Most pediatricians still aren't doing it. There is a problem of awareness and some doctors don't know what to do if they get a positive test. Whether the parents are unaware or the doctors are uneducated, it's a big problem for the health care system."
The non-profit organization Autism Speaks has an online screening available to parents and caregivers on their website here
. The screening, The Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R) is the same checklist used by medical professionals. The video below talks more about the importance of screening children at a younger age and the benefits of early intervention.
, Autism Speaks
, American Psychiatric Organization