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Early Autism Diagnosis Offers Hope

By Australasian Science Magazine

A new study has concluded that it is possible to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) much earlier than normally occurs. Early intervention can significantly change the outcomes for children who are diagnosed at a younger age.

A new study has concluded that it is possible to diagnose Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) much earlier than normally occurs. Early intervention can significantly change the outcomes for children who are diagnosed at a younger age.

Josephine Barbaro, a PhD student at La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, and her supervisor, A/Prof Cheryl Dissanayake, trained 241 maternal and child health nurses to look for markers of ASDs during routine check-ups of children at 8, 12, 18 and 24 months of age. Those considered at risk of ASD were referred for a more thorough developmental assessment.

From more than 22,000 children, 110 were assessed at La Trobe and 89 showed signs of ASD. While the markers change with age, they include an inability to maintain consistent eye contact, failing to smile in response to another’s smile, and rarely or never imitating another’s behaviour, even with prompting. Children with ASD were behind even those with language delay in“receptive language”, the capacity to understand what the nurse was saying.

Follow-up studies confirmed the diagnosis of the younger children at 24 months. Barbaro says that in other research “85–90% of children assessed as having ASD at two maintain the diagnosis, and in some studies 100%”. La Trobe continues to follow up the children, and Barbaro says that “so far only one has moved off the spectrum”.

Barbaro says that parents often detect and become concerned about the same markers, but are told by their GPs or paediatricians that their child will grow out of it. “They need to persist,” she says, “and try and get a referral to an ASD specialist”.

Barbaro and Dissanayake intend to train not only more maternal and child health nurses, but a range of other health care professionals in ASD marker recognition so that, Barbaro says, “anyone who comes in contact with children in a professional capacity is aware of the signs”. La Trobe is also set to establish an ASD diagnostic centre.

The benefits of such a program are large. Barbaro says that early intervention programs, where parents are taught how to teach children through play, increase intelligence in children with ASD and even prevent the full-blown manifestation of the disorder.