The Importance of Early Diagnosis in Autism

With one in every 68 children affected, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is one of the most common neurodevelopment ailments, according to the Scott Center for Autism Treatment at Florida Tech. These cases, which can range from mild to severe, typically appear in late infancy or early childhood, marked by social or communication insufficiencies that can hinder functioning. Until recently, an autism diagnosis was often approached as a lifelong condition, with many professionals striving to avoid labeling children as autistic at “too early” an age, writes Karola Dillenburger, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast, in The Conversation. 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also highlight delays in diagnosis: While less than half of children identified with ASD were first diagnosed by age 4, most of them had developmental concerns noted in their files before they were 3 years old.

Now, institutions like the Scott Center are championing earlier diagnosis for a jump start on interventions that may positively impact children with ASD. While the causes of ASD remain unknown, early intervention through Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) has proven to be effective among many patients at the Scott Center.

Early Autism Diagnosis Can Help with Treatment

Diagnosing children early in life with ASD allows for treatments that can improve daily life skills along with social skills, ultimately improving children’s quality of life. A 2017 clinical review published in the Psychology Research and Behavior Management Journal cites two different studies demonstrating substantial gains in thought, language and adaptive behavior among children with ASD who began interventions before age 4.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that babies and young children are screened for developmental delays at every wellness checkup, as many language and social delays can be identified by 18 months, if not earlier. Both the 18-month and 24-month checks up should include specific autism screens, most often an M-CHAT questionnaire filled out by the parent or caregiver. Diagnosis isn’t always black and white, however, as some babies may show delays at 6 months, and later catch up with peers, or a toddler may hit all milestones until 18 months and then regress.

Not only does an early diagnosis enable early, proactive treatment for the children with ASD, but it also enables access to support and intervention for parents of children with ASD, which can help reduce stress for parents, according to Dillenburger.

Know the Signs of Autism

While all children should be monitored for signs of autism, siblings of children diagnosed with autism should be given considered higher risk, and given special attention. According to the CDC, warning signs of autism include:

  • Repeating actions continuously
  • Repeating words that are said to them
  • Limited response to their own name
  • Responding unusually to everyday things
  • Not handling change well
  • Not relating to others well
  • Not making eye contact
  • Avoiding physical contact
  • Not understand emotions of themselves or others
  • Not engaging in imaginative play

ABA as an Effective Treatment

The Scott Center, now a leader in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), has seen many successful cases as a result of their approach to treatment. One such example is Henry McGill, who began early intervention treatments for ASD a few months before turning two. When he began treatment, Henry wasn’t speaking or responding to his name and he was throwing frequent tantrums because of his frustration with his limited ability to communicate. After a year of early intervention through ABA, Henry responds to his name, invites others to play with him, tells stories and sings songs.

And, according to Ivy Chong, a psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst and the Scott Center’s director of autism services, Henry’s case is just one example. “Research shows early detection and extremely early intervention in infants and toddlers are effective, but more study needs to be done,” she said. “We’re working to show that screenings and access to immediate treatment for infants and younger toddlers have enduring benefits and possibly mitigate the diagnosis,” said Chong in Florida Tech’s Discover magazine.

Endorsed by multiple state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Surgeon General and the New York State Department of Health, ABA systematically teaches children skills through play, with a treatment plan customized and adapted for each child.

The Impact of Intervention Settings

While early intervention can be important to equipping children with autism, the setting of their interventions may be equally so. Using a natural setting, such as the child’s home, daycare or preschool, is recommended because it allows the treating clinician to work with the child as well as the parent, to assess and manage the child’s environment for overstimulating factors, and to promote social development, communication skill, and sensory processing in the child’s everyday environment.

The Parent-Child Relationship

While health practitioners can support screening for autism, parents are often in the best position to detect the earliest signs of autism. Parents can raise concerns to their child’s pediatricians, request a referral to an autism specialist or receive a free state early intervention evaluation.

Parents can also set the tone for the way the family approaches a diagnosis once received. While receiving a diagnosis may be a relief in providing an explanation, or at least a name, for the unpredictable behavior, general aloofness and avoidance of affection parents may have noticed in their child, in many other cases, a diagnosis often spurs grief and spikes stress. However, parents who are willing to try new things, practice flexibility and approach treatment with creativity may find ways to manage treatment within the rhythm of their family life. One example: to encourage eye contact, one family rewarded their child when she could remember a guests’ eye color.

While research by institutions like the Scott Center continues to pursue a clearer method to diagnosis and treatment, it is increasingly apparent that early diagnosis and early intervention is a proven method for improving outcomes in children with ASD.

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