Training needed to identify autism early

Training needed to identify autism early

24 Jul 2009

A La Trobe University study has indicated the importance of a training program for maternal and child health nurses to boost the early identification of children with autism.

Autistic child playing with puzzleDr Cheryl Dissanayake – Director of the University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) who led the just-released study into prospective identification of autism in infancy – says special intervention programs for autism at younger ages maximises developmental opportunities for affected children .

‘Identifying infants at risk through a routine check-up will also save countless families the financial and emotional costs of dealing with numerous services over many years in the hope of identifying their child’s disorder,’ says Dr Dissanayake.

The need for more rapid identification and intervention is all the greater as the La Trobe research also reveals the rate of autism to be much higher than previously thought – one in 119 children, not one in 160.

The ‘Social Attention and Communication Study’ (SACS) was carried out by Dr Dissanayake in association with La Trobe PhD researcher Ms Josephine Barbaro and Maternal and Child Health Educator, Ms Lael Ridgway.  

An independent study, ‘The Early Language in Victoria Study’ (ELVS) –  by Professor Margot Prior from the University of Melbourne, who also chairs OTARC’s Advisory Committee, and La Trobe psychologist, Professor Edith Bavin – has found that 1 in 100 children are affected with autism.

Dr Dissanayake says in Australia and elsewhere, children with autism rarely receive a diagnosis before the age of three years.  As a result, they miss out on critical intervention in their early years when it is most needed.  

The SACS study was carried out with community service providers so that children were able to be diagnosed and begin specialised intervention before the age of two.

It trained 241 maternal and child health nurses in 184 Melbourne centres to identify signs of autism during routine check-ups at 8, 12, 18 and 24 months.

A total of 20,770 infants were monitored. Of the children identified as ‘at risk’ and assessed at La Trobe University, 81 per cent met criteria for Autistic Disorder/Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The remaining children had either language or other developmental delays.

Dr Dissanayake says the outcomes of the La Trobe study support a call by the American College of Paediatrics to undertake routine screening of all children between one and two years for signs of autism to facilitate early diagnosis.

‘The training of the nurses in the study was well received and showed excellent results. The importance of education about the early characteristics of ASD and the value of early identification and intervention cannot be underestimated.’

The study was funded by a Telstra Community Development Grant, endorsed by Autism Victoria and the Department of Human Sevices. Josephine Barbaro was supported by a Robert Menzies PhD Scholarship.

Dr Cheryl Dissanayake

Phone: +61 3 9479 1162
Mobile: 0430 88 2323




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