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Autism Awareness Efforts Boost Early Diagnoses

Study Shows Increased Enrollment in Early-Intervention Programs for Autistic Children

Tracking Early Autism Diagnoses

For the study, researchers cross-referenced data on births in Massachusetts between 2001 and 2005 with records on children enrolled in the state’s early-intervention programs for autism spectrum disorders before their third birthday.

The study included 385,631 children without documented autism spectrum disorders and 3,013 enrolled in early-intervention programs.

To be referred to an early-intervention program, children had to have failed a screening test of 23 questions called the modified checklist of autism in toddlers. The test asked questions about a child’s ability to interact with others, pretend during play, walk, speak, and hear.

Information on parental characteristics like age, education level, and race, were derived from birth certificates.

Researchers also included information about whether the children were born prematurely or at low birth weights or whether they were single births or multiples.

Autism Incidence: Boys vs. Girls

The incidence of autism spectrum disorders in children less than 3 years of age increased from 56 per 10,000 in children born in 2001 to 93 per 10,000 in children born in 2005.

There was a greater increase in boys than in girls.

Among boys, the early autism diagnoses increased 70% between children born in 2001 and those born in 2005. They went up 39% in girls.

That means boys were about 4.5 times more likely than girls to be given an early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

That’s not a huge surprise, researchers say, given that autism is known to be about three to four times more prevalent in boys than in girls.

Low birth weights, premature births, and multiple births were all at increased risk of an early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, the study found.

Autism diagnoses were more likely in children born to older mothers, especially those over 45. A father’s age or education appeared to have no impact on the likelihood of an autism diagnosis, however.

The study also found something intriguing with regards to race and ethnicity. At the beginning of the study, white children had a higher likelihood of early diagnosis. White children were nearly 30% more likely than African-American children and 90% more likely than Hispanic children to be referred to an early-intervention program. By the end of the study, those differences had disappeared.

“For a long time, it’s been felt that minority children were out there at equal rates but we just weren’t doing a good job of finding those children,” Landa says.

The fact that rate of early diagnoses equalized by the end of the study, she says, suggests that outreach programs to minority communities are working.

Indeed, researchers say, all groups appear to be benefiting from greater public health efforts.

“The fact that we’re getting them in early is great, because the earlier we can identify children and get them enrolled in appropriate services, the better the chances are to optimize their developmental and educational outcomes,” Manning says.


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