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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Most Children With Autism Diagnosed at 5 or Older

Data Provide Snapshot of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Special Health Care Needs
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 24, 2012 -- New research provides a snapshot of what life is like for school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder in the U.S.

The findings, which appear in the NCHS Data Brief, highlight areas where there is room for improvement, including earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder and access to behavioral therapies and other services. The new study looked at children aged 6 to 17 with special health care needs and autism spectrum disorder in 2011.

More than half of school-aged kids were age 5 or older when they were first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, the study showed. Less than 20% were diagnosed by age 2. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians screen children for autism at 18 months of age.

The CDC estimates that 1 in 88 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. This is the umbrella term for a group of developmental disorders that can range from mild to severe and that often affect social and communication skills. Treatment is individualized, and often involves behavioral therapies to address developmental delays along with medication.

Earlier Diagnosis of Autism Is Possible

Of the children in the study, about 9 of 10 received one or more therapies. Most commonly these included speech or language therapy and/or social skills training. More than half of these kids took at least one psychiatric medication, including stimulants, anti-anxiety drugs, or antidepressants.

"Our data indicate that many children with autism -- the majority -- are getting some sort of services such as speech or other individual-based interventions," says researcher Lisa J. Colpe, PhD, MPH, of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. "That is great news."

Outside experts say there are still many gaps in the diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder among school-aged kids in the U.S.

"Research tells us that children who start intervention earlier do better in the long run," says Geraldine Dawson, PhD, in an email. She is the chief science officer at Autism Speaks. "We can reliably diagnosis autism by 24 months, so professionals need to do a better job, including screening all children at 18 and 24 months."

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