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Evaluating Autism Diagnostic Tools


The prevalence of autism is increasing at a faster rate than any other developmental disability in children. Autism affects approximately one in 88 children and is increasing at a rate of about 23 percent per year. Children with Latino backgrounds have recently shown the highest increase in autism diagnoses. Perhaps the most significant finding from autism treatment research is the benefit of early identification and intervention. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends starting treatment as soon as autism is suspected; most children will begin to demonstrate signs of autism prior to age two or three. Sadly, 40 percent of children aren’t diagnosed until after age four, and children from culturally or linguistically diverse backgrounds are diagnosed even later.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities often diagnosed during early childhood that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges over a lifetime. They are called “spectrum disorders” because they affect each person in different ways and can range from very mild to severe.

Young children are typically screened for autism at well-child checkups. Early indicators that a child should receive a more comprehensive assessment for autism include:

  • Delays in social interaction and joyful expressions
  • Absence of shared enjoyment and back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, reaching or waving by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • No two-word phrases by 24 months

Dr. Bryn Harris, an assistant professor in the School Psychology program at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development, is evaluating autism diagnostic tools for children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and providing improved best practice guidelines for conducting autism evaluations.

“Research indicates that children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are misdiagnosed more often and identified later than white children,” said Harris. “That concerns us greatly because early, accurate autism identification and prompt autism intervention greatly improve a child’s development and potential.”

Harris believes that autism test procedures, materials and professional development learning activities should be augmented with the treatment needs of underserved and understudied populations in mind, specifically the needs of ethnically diverse and low-income communities. Children’s natural settings and cultural backgrounds should inform the tests.

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