Researchers advocate for earlier child screenings for autism

Universal child screenings for autism are not required, but they could be closer to becoming a reality after researchers outline new policies aimed at detecting autism earlier.

Currently, the average age children are diagnosed with autism is five years old, but research shows doctors can tell if a child is on the spectrum as early as 18 months.

“Early on, we are looking for clues - might be different socially, might not have a social smile, might not look you in the eyes, might not turn if you point to something,” said Dr. Thomas Stealey with Metropolitan Pediatric Specialists.

Dr. Stealey and others in his practice are already doing part of what researchers at the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend, and have parents answer a series of 20 questions to figure out if further testing should be done.

“Pediatricians do all sorts of screenings between birth and 24 months, there's no reason this couldn't be added,” said Jonah Weinberg with the Autism Society of Minnesota.

Weinberg agrees with the new recommendations, which also suggest screenings in other settings, such as daycares, and churches, at 18 months and again at 24 months. He believes waiting until kindergarten is too late.

“You then wind up spending a lot of resources on trying to bring them up to speed as oppose to try and get them ready,” said Weinberg. “It's the lower income families, the less educated families that have those later diagnosis. So, if we had universal screening it would make sure poor kids aren't behind the curve.”

Doctors missed diagnosing Jillian Nelson until she was 21 years old.
“I graduated high school, no one asked me if I was going to college," said Nelson. "No one asked me if I was pursuing secondary education. I was just chalked up as this dysfunctional kid that wasn't going to do anything."

Now she's one of many advocates for early universal screenings..

“A no-brainer, I think it's something we ought to do,” said Dr. Stealey.

For an example of what a universal autism screening questionnaire may look like click here.