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Study: Screening for autism earlier jump starts treatment

A new study from the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center may change the paradigm of diagnosis.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests kids be first screened for autism at 18 months. The study started screening kids at their year well-baby checkup, six months earlier than recommended.

That’s resulted in diagnoses and treatment years earlier.

Aiden DeCarlo was diagnosed with autism at 19 months in the early intervention study. He’s come to the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARRC, for nearly a year. 

“Big things that we see are in socialization. He enjoys playing around with friends. He really enjoys coming to school,” said Aiden’s dad, Alex DeCarlo.

Before he came to the center, there were tantrums because he couldn’t communicate. In fact, his mom said he was communicating at a 5-month-old’s level. 

“He’s now at between 2 and 2½. In nine months, he’s gained a year and a half," Amber Snowden, Aiden’s mom, said. “To see him in the not even a year that he’s already here at SARRC, how much he’s progressed is just completely amazing.” 

SARRC research director Dr. Christopher J Smith launched the study five years ago. One hundred and nine pediatricians used a standardized questionnaire in well-baby checkups at 12, 18, and 24 months.

Diagnosis age plummeted from 55 months to an average of 22. 

“What we want to do is not wait until we see absolutely clear impairments," Smith said. "We want to act on those early warning signs and get parents to seek an evaluation sooner so they can get into treatment sooner.” 

Families were referred to SARRC if screenings showed delays. Aiden was getting help more than two years before he might have been diagnosed outside the study. 

“We took all of that lost time that happens as a result of the standard procedure of screening and diagnosing and gave that back to the family that they could better spend on intervention and helping their child move forward,” Smith explained.

The study ended in June, but the early screenings and diagnoses will continue thanks to funding from Arizona Complete Health. Smith is working to expand the use of the standardized questionnaire and to train more pediatricians and diagnosticians, so families don’t have to wait so long for diagnosis and intervention.

He said early intervention is the single best way to help kids with autism reach their potential.