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Autism Screening

Autism is a common developmental disorder, but it can be difficult to identify in a young child. Increasingly, physicians have been called upon to perform routine autism screenings. All autism spectrum disorders are defined by deficits in three core areas1:

  • social skills
  • communication
  • behavior and interests

In 2000, a recent practice parameter from the American Academy of Neurology, which was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, called for the routine screening of all children for autism.

"Autism is a common disorder of childhood. Yet, it often remains unrecognized and undiagnosed until or after late preschool age because appropriate tools for routine developmental screening and screening specifically for autism have not been available. Early identification of children with autism and intensive, early intervention during the toddler and preschool years improves outcome for most young children with autism.” (Abstract of Practice parameter: Screening and diagnosis of autism. Neurology 2000, 55: 468-79.)

As stated above, routine screening is crucial because of autism’s prevalence, the difficulty in diagnosing the disorder, and because children with autism who receive early identification and intensive intervention have the best prognosis. Despite these reasons and recommendations, most children are never screened for autism. However, when a routine developmental screening raises concerns, or a child is at risk of atypical development, an autism screening is imperative.

The term “autism” refers to a wide range of autism spectrum disorders, from a child with “classic” autism who is non-verbal and asocial, to a high-functioning child with idiosyncratic social skills, play, and language. (Please see Autism Spectrum Disorders for a more detailed explanation of the various clinical categories of autism.) All autism spectrum disorders are defined by deficits in three core areas: social skills, communication, and behavior and interests. Because these deficits may be mild, autism can be difficult for a physician to identify, especially without special training or within a busy medical practice.

The basic screening for autism is as simple as the disorder is complex, taking less than five minutes. There are a variety of screening tools for autism, but they share a common goal. An autism screening enables a physician to target the three core areas of the disorder through a combination of observation and interaction. (For more information about autism screening tools, including examples, please see the Screening Tools section.)

1 Core deficit areas for Autism are drawn from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th ed., pp. 70-71) Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

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