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Autism Awareness Efforts Boost Early Diagnoses

Study Shows Increased Enrollment in Early-Intervention Programs for Autistic Children
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 13, 2011 -- Efforts to increase awareness about the early signs of autism appear to be working, a new study shows.

Researchers with the CDC, Harvard Medical School, and United Health Group found that the number of children younger than age 3 who were enrolled in early intervention programs for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in Massachusetts rose 66% in children born between 2001 and 2005.

Mounting evidence suggests that the impairments of autism -- including deficits in speech, IQ, and social skills -- can be tempered or even reversed if therapy is started early.

So the government has funded public health campaigns to increase awareness of the first signs of autism and the importance of early diagnosis among parents and health care providers.

Some states, including Massachusetts, have passed laws mandating insurance coverage for early interventions.

Advocacy and professional groups have also ramped up their efforts to encourage early diagnosis, and there’s been more media coverage of the disorder, says study researcher Susan E. Manning, MD, MPH, an epidemiologist with the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Taken together, she says, those efforts are probably responsible for much of the increase observed in the study.

Experts who were not involved in the study say that to the extent the increase in early diagnosis is a reflection of successful public awareness efforts, it is positive news.

“This is exactly what researchers who are working so hard to identify the early markers of autism and to develop these efficacious early interventions want to see happen,” says Rebecca Landa, PhD, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Baltimore.

But researchers could not rule out the possibility that some of the new diagnoses represented an actual uptick in affected children.

“Some of this could be due to an actual true increase in autism,” Manning says, “But how much of that, of the overall increase, is accounted for by a true increase in autism is hard to tease out because all the other factors come into play.”

Expansion of Autism Symptom List

Other experts say the increase noted in the study probably also reflects the expansion of symptoms that are used to define autism spectrum disorders. They worry some young children may be getting a diagnosis based on symptoms they’ll eventually outgrow.

“Because ASD now includes only a few symptoms of classic autism, children who previously were not diagnosed with ASD are now being identified,” says Stephen Camarata, PhD, an autism specialist and professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. 

Camarata says “late talking,” or talking after the age of 2, which affects about 10% of all toddlers, is an example.

“If late talking is now viewed as diagnostic for putting a child on ‘the autism spectrum,’ then all late talkers will be identified as autistic,” Camarata says.

“This is important because, if there is nothing else wrong -- no other symptoms of autism or other disability such as cognitive impairment -- approximately 60%-70% of the late talkers catch up by the time they reach 3 years old,” he tells WebMD.

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