Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain, including genetic conditions, but other causes are not yet known. ASD is a neurological developmental disability, more common in boys than in girls, with an estimated prevalence of one to two percent of the world population. The diversity of the disability means that each person’s individual experience of autism and needs for supports and services can vary widely.
The symptoms included having trouble with verbal and nonverbal communication, delayed milestones and social awkwardness.
Diagnosing it can be difficult because there is no medical test to detect it. Doctors therefore have look at the child’s developmental history and behavior to make a diagnosis. While it is often diagnosed at 18 months when parents alert their pediatricians, the diagnosis often comes later.
It is widely believed that early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder is essential for better outcome, as demonstrated by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to screen all 1.5 to 2.5-year-old toddlers ASD. However, multiple longitudinal studies of children diagnosed with it disorder at 1.5 to six years of age and treated in community settings have not reported any associations between earlier diagnosis and improved outcome in core symptoms.
Thus, there has been an ongoing debate about the necessity of universal screening for toddlers, but now, a new study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beersheba has shown that early diagnosis is essential – their work clearly proves that early diagnosis and treatment lead to considerable improvement in ASD social symptoms.
Their findings have been published in the peer-reviewed journal Autism under the title “Early diagnosis of autism in the community
is associated with marked improvement in social symptoms within 1–2 years.”
BGU’s Prof. Ilan Dinstein, head of the Azrieli National Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research, led a team that measured changes in core autism spectrum disorder symptoms over a one to two-year period in 131 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 1.2 to five years of age and treated in the community. Community treatment is defined as regular treatment, in contrast to highly specialized intervention programs that are developed and studied in university settings. Previous studies had not examined whether children diagnosed before two-and-a-half years and treated in the community improve more than those diagnosed at later ages.
The results revealed that children who were diagnosed before 2.5 years of age were three times more likely to exhibit considerable improvements in the core social symptoms of autism in comparison to children diagnosed at later ages. “We believe this larger improvement is due to the larger brain plasticity and behavioral flexibility that is a fundamental characteristic of early childhood,” noted Dinstein, a member of the departments of psychology and cognitive and brain sciences. “These results highlight the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder even in community settings with heterogeneous services. In addition, these results motivate further prioritization of universal screening for autism spectrum disorder before two-and-a-half years of age.”
“The study emphasizes how important it is that parents and professionals recognize the early signs of ASD,” added Prof. Ditza Tzahor, director of the ALUT organization’s Autism Center at Shamir Medical Center in Tzrifin and Tel Aviv University (TAU). “In addition, these results demand further prioritization of universal screening for ASD before 2.5 years of age. Creating tools to assess ASD early is of great importance.”