HEADLINES Published January13, 2015 By Bernadette Strong

Early Signs of Autism May Be Missed in Pediatric Check-Ups

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An autistic boy rising a horse.
(Photo : Tom Ervin, Getty Images )

Pediatricians and other healthcare providers may not be able to spot the signs of autism during short pediatric exams. An office exam may not provide enough information about symptoms that are associated with autism. This may mean autistic children may not receive a referral for further testing or for early therapy.

Many visits to the pediatrician are only 10 to 20 minutes long. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that psychologists who are experienced in dealing with toddlers and with autism missed many cases when shown two 10-minute-long video samples of normally developing children, children with a language delay, and children who screened positive for autistic behaviors with a large pediatric practice. The observation videos were taken during the participants' autism evaluations.

The children were between 15 and 33 months old. The psychologists looked for five behaviors, including responding, initiating, vocalizing, play, and response to name in the video samples. They were then asked for their impressions on whether the child should be referred for further autism screening basely solely on the 10-minute videos.

The psychologists missed 39% of the cases in the children who had been found to be autistic based on the videos. The study found that, in the 10-minute videos, children who had autism only showed atypical behavior 11% of the time and showed typical (normal) behavior 89% of the time. This made it very easy for even an experienced observer to miss seeing symptoms.

"Decisions for referral need to be based on more information, including autism screening and information from parents. We're hoping that this information can really empower parents to talk with pediatric care providers about their concerns," said Terisa Gabrielsen, a lead author on the study and an assistant professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.

Last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. This is a 30% increase from two years earlier. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be screened for autism at 18 and 24 months of age, but not all pediatricians or pediatric clinics do this.

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