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New test for autism can be done early

March 23, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that all children be screened for autism at 1 and a half and 2 years of age. But there's no blood test to diagnose autism spectrum disorders, and a typical evaluation can take two to four hours.However, a new screening test is being developed to help doctors determine if a toddler's at risk.

Even before Ben's first birthday, his mom started worrying about autism.

"He wasn't imitating us. He wasn't pointing or clapping or playing any of those sort of interactive games," said Katy Crowther, Ben's mother.

Though her pediatrician told her it was too early, Katy pushed for autism testing at just 14 months. Early intervention has made all the difference.

"There's still a gap between Ben and his typical peers that you can see, but he has caught up tremendously," said Katy.

The Rapid ABC (Rapid Attention Back and Forth Communication Test) is a new screening that uses simple activities to test for autism. Experts check to see how toddlers respond to activities like having their name called, looking at a book, being tickled and playing ball.

"I wanted to see that not only was he catching the ball, but he was returning it to me, so I was involved in that action," said Jenny Mathys, a social worker at the Emory Autism Center.

The five-minute screening targets attention, reciprocity and communication in children aged 15 to 17 months. Once it's complete, a software program computes a score. If autism is suspected, the child will undergo further testing.

"There really isn't something quick and rapid like the ABC out there where pediatricians can interact for just three to five minutes," said Jenny.

"It'll help parents and myself to feel comfortable that I'm doing everything I can to identify if there was an issue," said Jessica Sales, mother of Cooper, a child who was tested.

Many doctors feel children should be tested for developmental screenings at regular checkups: 9 months, 18 months, 24 or 30 months, with continued screenings if a child is high risk.

If the doctor sees any delays in the way a child learns, speaks, moves or behaves, a more comprehensive evaluation should be done. That includes hearing and vision and hearing screenings and neurological testing.

The Rapid ABC test was developed by Emory Autism Resource Center and Georgia Tech University.

Because the center's Web site is still in the development stage, the best way to get the information on the test to your pediatrician is to contact the center directly.

The Rapid Attention Back and Forth Communication screener
The Rapid Attention Back and Forth Communication screener, or Rapid ABC, was developed by Emory Autism Resource Center and Georgia Tech University. The Rapid ABC is designed to assess a child's risk for ASDs during a regular checkup in a pediatrician's office. The test takes three to five minutes and includes five activities. The activities test gesturing, attention level, body language and eye contact. All the results are then scanned and scored by a software program. This scanning system secures a continuity of care and keeps track of patient's history of behaviors to see regressions that can lead to early detection.

Right now, in order to get information on the test, you will need to contact the team at Emory's Autism Resource Center because they are still in the early stages of developing a better way to distribute the information to pediatricians via their website.

E-mail Monica Allen, who is the Senior Psychological Specialist at rapid.abc@gmail.com.

You can also visit the a Web site for the Emory team's collaborators at Georgia Tech. Their child study lab is used as a resource for doing screenings, and there is contact information there as well.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are found in about one of every 110 children in the United States. ASDs are developmental disabilities that can cause significant communication, social and behavioral challenges. People who have ASDs usually handle information differently, and it affects each person in different ways, especially in regards to symptoms and severity. Autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder are types of ASDs. Autistic disorder, also coined "classic autism," is characterized by language delays, social challenges and abnormal behaviors or interests. Asperger syndrome is considered a milder autistic disorder, without the language or intellectual disability. Pervasive developmental disorder includes people who only meet some of the criteria for autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome. Signs of ASDs typically begin before the age of 3. Many children experience symptoms such as obsessive interests, unusual reactions to the five senses, getting upset over minor changes, repeating of words, avoiding eye contact, not responding to their name by 12 months and not pointing at interesting objects. (SOURCE: CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL)