The American Academy of Pediatricians has long held that physicians should screen every child for developmental delays, but researchers from Children’s Specialized Hospital realized no one had studied if the people who see children in underserved communities every day — preschool teachers — were able to also effectively screen for autism spectrum disorder.
Using grants from the Governor’s Council for Medical Research and Treatment of Autism, pediatric psychologist Jill Harris and developmental behavioral pediatrician Dr. Yvette Janvier trained preschool teachers on the signs of autism in six New Jersey cities with large populations of low-income residents and minorities. The doctors studied how well parents used common screening tests and how well preschool teachers used the same tests by following up with children who screened positive on the spectrum.
They also worked directly with federally qualified health clinics to establish screening and referral programs for toddlers — many of whom were in a Medicaid program or did not have health insurance — seen by staff. The six participating cities were New Brunswick, Plainfield, Trenton, Bridgeton, Newark and Elizabeth.
The doctors are presenting their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research, in Toronto, on Thursday and Friday.
Harris said while the teachers were slightly predisposed to over-diagnose the condition, they were much more accurate at diagnosing the disability than parents, and did a good job overall identifying kids at risk. The study revealed a 3 percent occurrence of autism in the six cities — higher than the 2 percent reported for the entire state by the CDC.
“What we wanted to do was go into the communities and see if this model of care would improve access to services,” Harris said, as early intervention has proven to make a significant difference in helping autistic children reach their maximum potential.
Harris said anecdotally, parents had difficulty recognizing the “red flags” of autism, and several cultural and language barriers were identified when using the traditional screening tools.
The next step, according to Harris, is to acquire a grant to develop a sustainable screening program through the national Head Start organization, which already does regular screenings for other childhood health concerns. She’s hoping to eventually adopt a “train-the-trainer” program.
“It’s cost effective, in the sense that if you identify a child who has autism early, it can hopefully help that child to be more productive,” Harris said. “If kids get services young, you’re going to be spending less money down the road, in terms of special ed or other specialized support they might need.”