Earlier detection may lead to better outcomes for those on the spectrum

Children with autism spectrum disorder can be reliably diagnosed as young as 14 months, according to a study by UC San Diego autism researchers. If results are confirmed by independent research, this would be the earliest age this has proven feasible.

Earlier detection means earlier treatment, which should improve outcomes, said Karen Pierce, co-director of the UCSD Autism Center for Excellence. Pierce led the study with Eric Courchesne, the center’s other co-director.

Autism screening should be first done at 18 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of diagnosis in the US is 4 years.

That gap represents a missed opportunity to guide these very young children into normal social development, Pierce said.

“The brain is very plastic. It’s developing at a really super-fast pace from birth to age 3,” she said. “There’s a lot of connections that are formed between brain cells. So hopefully we can shape those connections.”

The study was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics. It can be found at http://j.mp/autismucsd1

The toddlers were originally assessed between 12 and 36 months, and had at least one followup evaluation.

For those originally diagnosed at 14 months, 79 percent were again found to be on the spectrum at followup. By 16 months, the diagnosis was 83 percent reliable. However, for those diagnosed at 12 to 13 months, the rate was just 50 percent.

Of the total number of toddlers assessed, seven originally placed on the spectrum went on to normal development, the study found. Contrarily, 105 toddlers originally diagnosed as not having autism were identified as being on the spectrum at a later visit.

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