Office Visits May Be Too Short to Detect Autism Risk

Jan 20 2015

Office Visits May Be Too Short to Detect Autism Risk

autismIdentifying autism spectrum disorder (ASD) risk early is imperative, because the earlier autism is detected the earlier clinicians will be able to intervene. In general, the younger the patient, the more effective ASD interventions are. However, according to a new study published in Pediatrics, short observations — such as an office visit — may be insufficient when it comes to assessing autism risk.

Led by the Center for Autism Research’s Judith S. Miller PhD, MS, the researchers studied a group of children aged 15 to 33 months with autism, speech delays, and typical development. The researchers asked licensed psychologists with autism expertise — who were unaware of the study participants’ status — to analyze two 10-minute video samples of the participants’ autism evaluations. The experts measured five behaviors, including responding, initiating, vocalizing, play, and response to name.

The article’s first author was Terisa Gabrielsen, PhD, NCSP, of Brigham Young University (BYU). Before moving to BYU, Dr. Gabrielsen completed training at CHOP, where she and Dr. Miller conducted research that informed the current study. That work, also published in Pediatrics, examined the feasibility of a formal autism screening process.

In the current study, the researchers found the experts missed referrals for 39 percent of the children in the autism group. Detecting autism risk based on the brief observations alone was challenging because the children who had autism showed more typical behavior (89 percent of the time) than atypical behavior (11 percent) during that short window.

“It’s not often the pediatrician’s fault that referrals are missed,” Dr. Gabrielsen said. “Even autism experts missed a high percentage of referrals within that short timeframe. Decisions for referral need to be based on more information, including autism screening and information from parents.”

In March of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that one in 68 children in the U.S. has an ASD — a 29 percent increase over the 2012 rate. The seemingly growing prevalence of ASD demonstrates the need for accurate autism referral decisions. This decision-making process should include parent observations, developmental testing, a detailed history, and autism screening tools in addition to clinical judgment, the research team concluded. “

Certainly, some young children with autism are clearly impaired and easy to recognize,” noted Dr. Miller in a press release put out by BYU. “However, this study looked at the entire range of children who present to the pediatrician’s office, and we found that many children’s impairments are not immediately obvious. For these children, formalized screening instruments and more time with a specialist may be critical.”

For more information about autism and autism research, see the Center for Autism Research. A description of diagnostic tests and other information on how parents can spot the developmental delays associated with ASD is available in the diagnosis section of Autism Roadmap. The Roadmap provides directories of service providers, community resources, government programs, ideas for various stages of childhood and beyond, and explanations of the latest research on ASD treatments and interventions.