Tools for Parents Who Worry About Autism

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In our October issue, out any day now, we have a special report by Darshak Sanghavi, M.D., called “Understanding Autism.” In it Dr. Sanghavi, a member of the Parents advisory board, explores what is and isn’t known about autism’s causes, how the condition is identified and diagnosed, and the growing trend among researchers to focus on early intervention to help children with autism succeed.

What many parents of young children will want to know, of course, is how they can tell whether their child might be at risk for autism (note that they do not diagnose). And there are two important tools available to help moms and dads do just that—fairly simple questionnaires that take only a few minutes to complete. As we explain in our story:

Perhaps the most common one is the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT), which can be used on children starting at 18 months of age. It consists of two dozen Yes/No questions such as “Does your child ever use his finger to point, to ask for something?” If two or more answers indicate problems, the test usually is considered positive.

A relatively new tool, the Infant-Toddler Checklist, helps determine whether a child from 6 months to 24 months is at risk for autism or a developmental or language delay. Its reliability hasn’t been studied as extensively as other tools. As with M-CHAT, it does not diagnose; it’s meant to help pediatricians decide whether they should refer a child for further evaluation.

Some of the questions might freak out parents needlessly. For example, the M-CHAT asks if a child seems “oversensitive to noise” or wanders “with no purpose,” which are both normal behaviors for many toddlers. But for the purposes of the screening test, it doesn’t count if the action has happened only once or twice — it needs to happen regularly. If you feel uneasy as you answer the questions, try not to panic. But do talk to your pediatrician, who will help determine what you should do next.

Always remember: A positive test doesn’t necessarily mean your child has autism, just as only a fraction of women with a positive mammogram will go on to have an abnormal breast biopsy. “It’s very likely, though, that a child who tests positive has some kind of delay that can benefit from early intervention,” says Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., chief science officer of Autism Speaks, the country’s largest autism science and advocacy group.


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