UW to fund early detection program for autism

Feb 9, 2015, 6:38 AM | Updated: 2:22 pm
While we don’t know what causes autism, early detection can make a world of difference for to...
While we don't know what causes autism, early detection can make a world of difference for toddlers. The University of Washington was recently given a $3.9 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to find an innovative way to increase the likelihood of early detection in local children. (AP Photo/File)
(AP Photo/File)

Autism is still a big medical mystery. In the last 30 years the diagnosis rate has ballooned from three out of every 10,000 children to one in 68.

While we don’t know what causes autism, early detection can make a world of difference for toddlers.

The University of Washington was recently given a $3.9 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to find an innovative way to increase the likelihood of early detection in local children.

Doctor Wendy Stone has been at the forefront of the UW’s autism detection and intervention research. She believes researchers have found that innovative method for diagnosis and treatment.

Stone said that with the grant money, tablets will be purchased and given out to physician’s offices in four Washington counties: Skagit, Lewis, Spokane and Yakima. The tablets will have a web-based questionnaire referred to as the M-CHAT (Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers) that parents will answer in order to identify if their child has any red flags for autism.

“The current situation for children with autism is that parents often have concerns about their child’s development at an average age of 17 or 18 months, yet the average age of diagnosis in the U.S. is three years or older and it can be a couple of years past that if you happen to be in a minority or under served population,” said Stone.

According to Stone, the program is in effort to catch more children who are at risk for autism even before a formal diagnosis can be made.

“Early intervention is critical,” she said. “The birth-to-three years is not the only time that children learn and that interventions can have an impact. But it does seem to be the period of time when the connections between different areas of the brain are developing and becoming more efficient.”

The M-CHAT includes questions dealing with specific behaviors and situations like if a child gets upset by everyday noises or if they are interested in playing with other children.

The tablet version of the questionnaire streamlines the diagnosis process, too, because it incorporates followup questions that would otherwise be done by a doctor. Stone said this is ideal because often physicians are too busy for the followup questions and that can lead to many false-positive diagnosis.

Even when a diagnosis is made, specialized therapy can be hard to come by. The grant program meets that head on by training doctors to teach parents simple play-based intervention for at home to improve their child’s social and language skills.

It’s a relatively new and hopeful approach to treating autism. Stone said in the past, autism was like hitting a brick wall.

“Twenty-five years ago, when we diagnosed autism it was in older children and we would say to the families, ‘Your child has Autism and your child is always going to have this disorder.’ Now when we diagnose at 18 months or 24 months we say it’s a whole different story for parents.”

Stone has been working in Autism research since the mid-80’s. The most remarkable thing is that there is still no definitive cause. She said there are some genetic factors, but that environmental factors cannot be ruled out.

Until the mystery of autism is unlocked, Stone said the best chance parents can give their children is through early detection.

“Infants come into this world pre-wired to interact with others. They want to watch their mother’s face, they pay special attention to the eyes. Just imagine, we don’t know this is true for autism, but just imagine if an infant comes into the world without that drive to interact or just that motivation to attend to another person’s face. Given that learning occurs in a social context, you can imagine how that might affect learning,” said Stone.

The University of Washington’s program will be launched within the next year.

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UW to fund early detection program for autism