Autism research: Younger diagnosis can help jump start early intervention

A new study could help change how early autism is diagnosed, and that earlier diagnosis may have a positive impact on a child's development.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests kids be first screened for autism at 18 months.

Autism, which is also known as autism spectrum disorder, is characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication

Scientists from Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center or SAARC, began to screen kids at their year well baby checkup -- six months earlier than recommended. That has resulted in diagnoses and treatment years earlier.

Aiden DeCarlo was diagnosed with autism at 19 months in the early intervention study. He's been coming to SARRC for nearly a year.

"Big things that we see are in socialization. He enjoys playing around with friends. He really enjoys coming to school," said Aiden's dad Alex DeCarlo.

Before he came to SARRC, there were tantrums because he couldn't communicate. In fact, Amber Snowden, Aiden's mom says he was communicating at a 5-month-old's level.

She's impressed with his progress.

She said, "He's now at between 2 and 2 1/2. In nine months, he's gained a year and a half."

SARRC research director Christopher J Smith, PhD launched the study five years ago. One hundred and nine pediatricians used a standardized questionnaire in well baby checkups at 12, 18 and 24 months. Diagnosis age plummeted from 55 months to an average of 22.

Smith said, "What we want to do is not wait until we see absolutely clear impairments. We want to act on those early warning signs and get parents to seek an evaluation sooner so they can get into treatment sooner."

Families were referred to SARRC if screenings showed delays.

Aiden was getting help more than two years before he might have been diagnosed if he hadn't been part of the study.

"We took all of that lost time that happens as a result of the standard procedure of screening and diagnosing and gave that back to the family that they could better spend on intervention and helping their child move forward," Smith said.

Amber shared, "To see him in the not even a year that he's already here at SARRC, how much he's progressed is just completely amazing."

Treatment for autism is different for all people. Each treatment or intervention needs to be structured specifically to each individual patient. And intervention can involve behavioral treatments, medicines or both.

The study ended in June, but the early screenings and diagnoses will continue thanks to funding from Arizona Complete Health.

Smith is working to expand use of the standardized questionnaire and to train more pediatricians and diagnosticians, so families don't have to wait so long for diagnosis and intervention.

He says early intervention is the single best way to help kids with autism reach their potential.
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