3 Benefits of Screening Toddlers for Autism

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Offline Rebecca Dean

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3 Benefits of Screening Toddlers for Autism
« on: Jul 25, 2016 @ 01:19 PM »
"My daughter was speaking, but now she won't say a word. I searched online, and now I think she may be autistic."

This is how most parents begin their first conversation about autism. Concerns about changes in behavior initiate a series of tests - and, in some cases, a diagnosis. This diagnosis triggers much-needed interventions like therapy, education, and family support.

But could this result have turned out differently? If the tests had been performed earlier, it's certainly possible.

All parents want their children to be able to reach their full potential academically, emotionally, and socially. Autistic children who receive early intervention (http://www.firstsigns.org/screening/) show measurable improvement in these areas, and their chances of living a happy, satisfying life as an independent adult are vastly increased.

Why Screen All Toddlers?

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently issued a statement (https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2016/02/17/keeping-%E2%80%9Cgrade-a%E2%80%9D-universal-early-screening-autism) saying that there is "insufficient" evidence to recommend universal screening for autism in children aged 18-24 months. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other advocacy groups (https://www.autismspeaks.org/science/policy-statements/autism-speaks-asf) have repeatedly encouraged the Task Force to recommend universal screening, which has been standard practice since 2007.

The Task Force's statement does not recommend against universal screening; it calls for more research into the effectiveness of such screenings. But the statement may still cause parents and some practitioners to believe that such screenings are unnecessary or unhelpful.

So why is it important that all infants and toddlers be screened?

1. Screening helps prevent missed diagnoses. Currently, approximately one in every 42 boys and one in 189 girls is diagnosed with autism. This gender disparity (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/autism-the-most-promising-research/) may be due in part to a difference in symptom severity and recognition. Boys with autism often have symptoms  that are more obvious, thus raising concern more quickly. Children with more subtle symptoms (http://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/autism-spectrum-disorders-24-warning-signs/) - such as intent focus on objects rather than people - may go undiagnosed, missing out on vital help during their formative years.

Universal screenings during "well child" checkups would help greatly in mitigating this problem, as young children would be evaluated for these symptoms in advance of raising concern.

2. Earlier intervention yields better results. Seventeen percent of children under 18 have some form of a developmental, behavioral, or learning disability. Yet fewer than 3 percent of children under 3 participate in federally funded early intervention programs.

This is tragic, considering that the first three years of life are the most important in a person's cognitive, social, and emotional development. Research continues to show that early identification of autism symptoms is key to establish effective intervention plans. The earlier the intervention, the better the chance of reducing or even removing the barriers faced by children with an autism spectrum disorder.

According to a 2014 study (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/early-intervention-could-reverse-autism-study-suggests/) , if treatment for autism-related symptoms is started as early as 6 months of age, many signs of autism may be dramatically reduced or even disappear by age 2 or 3 - the time when children are usually just being diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Studies like this suggest that we need more thorough screenings of infants and toddlers, not fewer.

3. Parents are able to better help their children learn and grow. The earlier a parent knows that his or her child is affected by autism, the sooner he or she can acquire the specialized knowledge and skills necessary to parent a child with these specific needs.

Without a good understanding of how autism affects their children's learning patterns and behaviors, many parents isolate themselves and their children from social situations that may trigger behavior problems. While this is an understandable coping mechanism, isolation denies an autistic child the opportunity to develop normal social responses.

Similarly, parents of autistic children often find themselves giving in to their children's needs and demands when they're young, without requiring them to communicate clearly or experience consequences for their behavior. This can reinforce behavior that may become very problematic later in life.

The earlier that parents can receive education and support, the more skills they can employ in their parenting. It is, after all, the parents - not the therapists - whose everyday care and attention are critical to an autistic child's early development.

Screenings Are Easy and Vital!

Early screening for autism doesn't have to be difficult or involved. There are a multitude of ways a doctor's office can work the screening into a standard checkup.

For example, a questionnaire can be filled out in the waiting room or at home before the visit. Likewise, nurses can ask a few key questions during initial information-gathering, and doctors can ask casual questions during their assessment in the office. None of these checks would even have to disrupt the normal flow of the checkup.

Screening a child for autism is virtually risk-free and can be done in minutes. The impact of an effective screening and early diagnosis, however, lasts a lifetime.

Rebecca Dean is the president of Tiny Tots Therapy Inc. and a partner in Therapy Nook and Kids Blvd. Sensory Gym. She earned her degree in occupational therapy and is certified and trained in sensory integration. Rebecca believes in a holistic therapeutic approach.



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