Why Early Detection Is Key
There is one thing all experts and autism advocates agree on: Early diagnosis is crucial. Research shows that the earlier in life ASD is identified and treated, the better your child's prognosis. A University of Wisconsin study published last November found that almost half of all 3-year-old children with autism who received intensive behavioral therapy for four years were able to enter regular education classrooms. Michael Morrier, PhD, assistant director of the Autism Center at Emory Medical Center, in Atlanta, found this to be the case at his center: "If we get children into therapy around 18 months to 2 years, 85 to 90 percent of them are able to enter a regular kindergarten classroom," says Morrier.
For years experts didn't pick up signs of autism until a child was 3, 4, or even 5 years old. "Now that's considered incredibly late in the game," says Donald Oswald, PhD, an autism researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. While there are some early warning signs that should send you into your pediatrician's office, your child's doctor should do a developmental screening test every time you take your baby in for a well-child visit.
Trust Your Instincts
But while experts agree that starting treatment for autism at an early age is important, the process of actually diagnosing your child is often easier said than done (as illustrated by Gunn-Burghart's situation). Though doctors have the best of intentions, many aren't educated properly about developmental delays that could signal autism. This is why, experts say, if you have a nagging instinct that something isn't right, you should press your pediatrician, and, if necessary, seek a second opinion.
"Less than 30 percent of all healthcare providers screen children for developmental delays, so you shouldn't assume that if you don't say anything, your pediatrician is automatically doing this," says Nancy Wiseman, a mother of a child with ASD and president of First Signs, a public awareness campaign and training program that focuses on early detection of ASD. If your pediatrician refuses to have your child screened, find another physician. If your child is under the age of 3, schedule an appointment at a local state-funded Early Intervention Center, which provides a developmental assessment.