The rate of autism among American children is rising, and early intervention can make a significant difference in their quality of life. But under the current model of checkups, doctors are missing the signs that should get kids referred to a specialist.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the typical 10- to 20-minute exams are not sufficient for pediatricians to glean enough information to give an autism referral. Because the visit is so brief, the researchers write, many children with autism don’t show any behavior that would cause concern.
Even autism specialists, overlooked symptoms that should have gotten
“One of the biggest problems with early identification of autism is that many children aren’t identified until they reach the school system,” says lead author and Brigham Young University assistant professor Terisa Gabrielsen. “This means that they have missed out on some prime years for intervention that can change a child’s outcome.”
According to the CDC, in 2012 the rate of autism among U.S. children was 1 in 88. In 2014, 1 in 68 children was found to have an autism spectrum disorder, a rise of 30 percent.
The study involved autism experts reviewing 10-minute evaluations of children ages 15 months to 33 months in a doctor’s office. Even the experts missed typical warning signs of autism in 39 percent of cases.
“It’s often not the pediatrician’s fault that referrals are missed,” Gabrielsen said. “We’re hoping that this information can really empower parents to talk with pediatric care providers about their concerns.”
Screening for autism is still not universal, but there are free tools available for parents to make preliminary assessments, such as the M-CHAT-R checklist.
Identifying autism in toddlers means intervention can begin while the brain is undergoing rapid growth, which can help change the outcome for the child.
“Parents see their children at their very best and very worst,” Gabrielsen says. “They can be educated about signs and symptoms, and need to help their care providers by speaking up if there’s a problem and being involved in referral decisions.