Today in Pediatrics, researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health say they have developed a successful screening tool for pediatricians that will allow them to assess for signs of autism spectrum disorders at 12 months.
The screening tool is done at a child’s one-year well visit, takes five minutes, and asks parents questions about their child’s eye contact, babbling, words, gestures and pointing, object recognition, smiling and other aspects of social-emotional development.
10,479 one-year-olds in San Diego from 137 pediatricians’ offices participated in the pilot study. The researchers say that as a result of the screening tool, many of the delayed kids were started with therapy as early as 19 months. The average age for formal autism diagnosis in the US, according to the CDC, is five years old.
This is potentially great news for catching signs of autism early, when kids are the most receptive and influenced by therapies.
But here’s why I find myself getting frustrated reading about this large, exciting autism study:
Looking at the research and seeing how it basically involved compiling a behavior checklist and distributing it to pediatricians I can’t help but be baffled and annoyed — Why has this taken so long?
We’ve known for years that autism spectrum disorders affect more and more children every year — now it’s 1 in 110 — because of our expanding diagnostic criteria and awareness of the symptoms, plus the possible X-factor of environmental triggers we don’t yet understand. So why has it not been standard practice for physicians to administer a screening tool for kids at their one year check up, or at least their 18 month exam?
I remember my son’s pediatrician asking me about words, clapping smiling and pointing, and I think a lot of pediatricians might feel like they “just know” from seeing a baby in action whether or not there is cause for concern. But given that the average age for autism diagnosis is well into the preschool years, clearly the approach of not having a standardized tool hasn’t been working.
According to the Pediatrics study, of all the pediatricians interviewed, very few had been doing routine screenings for autism. After the study, 96 percent of the doctors who participated were using it because they found it that helpful.
Am I being unreasonable here? Does it not seem crazy that we haven’t had more standardized autism screening tools for babies and toddlers until now (in fact, this tool won’t be available for awhile since it’s only in research mode)?