A July 11 release by Vanderbilt University describes a new study in the journal Autism about a training program to enhance autism spectrum disorder (ASD) identification and assessment within Tennessee community pediatric settings.
After participating in training to learn strategies for conducting rapid diagnostic assessments following positive ASD screenings, pediatricians reported significant changes in their screening and consultation practices, with 85 percent reporting an increase in numbers of children with autism evaluated within their practice. The study also found that pediatric providers were nearly as accurate as specialists in their diagnoses, with agreement seen in more than 90 percent of all cases.
Despite screening initiatives, advocacy efforts and increased public awareness, the most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data regarding autism prevalence suggest that the diagnosis is still not made until 4-5 years of age. The increased prevalence of autism and documented benefits of early intensive intervention have created a need for flexible systems for obtaining accurate, time-efficient diagnoses, the authors wrote.“Ideally, definitive early diagnosis of ASD would be rapidly accomplished by a team of developmental specialists, and children at risk for diagnosis would obtain services immediately after screening positive. The reality is that such diagnostic teams, or even individual professionals, are not available in most locations,” said corresponding author Zachary Warren, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Special Education and director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) at Vanderbilt University. “Even when available, the waitlists for diagnostic services are so long that children referred for evaluation wait extended periods of time for diagnosis. As a parent, I cannot fathom how stressful it would be to be told that your child may have autism, and we’ll let you know the answer to that question in six to 12 months.”
“Although the field has made great advances in early screening for autism, the steps taken after a positive ASD screening in community settings are much less clear and often problematic for clinicians, families and systems of care alike,” Warren said. “Essentially, more children are being referred for a very limited number of expert diagnostic assessment resources. Because of this, wide-scale screening for ASD at young ages may in fact increase wait times for diagnostic assessment. Given this context, it is critical to develop enhanced ASD-specific diagnostic training programs if we hope to shift the age of diagnosis and promote earlier access to early intervention.”
This study builds on pilot findings from 2009 by presenting a more comprehensive evaluation of the training model and utilizing a broader sample of pediatric providers.
- Community pediatric providers were more likely to conduct independent autism assessments within their practice, rather than referring the child for outside evaluation.
- Community pediatric providers showed high agreement in ASD classification with expert clinicians.
- A dramatic shift was seen in pediatric providers’ sense of the appropriateness for a child to receive a diagnosis from his or her primary care provider, without or before a comprehensive evaluation.
- A dramatic shift in the comfort level of discussing ASD diagnoses with caregivers was seen.
- There was a significant increase in the number of diagnoses made within respective provider practices.