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Cast Your Vote: Autism Researcher Nominated to Time’s Top 100 List

April 03, 2012

Time magazine has nominated autism researcher Karen Pierce, Ph.D., to its 2012 list of the world’s top 100 influential people. The magazine invites readers to cast their votes here.

In nominating Dr. Pierce to its prestigious Top 100 list, Time cites her Autism Speaks-funded research using a screening tool that can identify children with autism spectrum disorder as part of the one-year, well-baby checkup.

Current American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines call for screening all toddlers for autism at 18 and 24 months, the age at which established screening methods are best able to identify its signs and symptoms. Earlier detection allows for earlier intervention with behavioral therapies that can improve outcomes. In some cases, intensive and effective early intervention can avoid autism’s most severe behavioral and cognitive problems.

Autism Speaks included Dr. Pierce’s work in its Top Ten Research Accomplishments of 2011. Dr. Pierce is a psychologist at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine.

This is the first time that the magazine has nominated an autism researcher to its prestigious and highly publicized “most influential” list, notes Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “We are both proud of Karen and gratified to see the importance of autism research recognized so widely.” 

Dr. Pierce’s study involved 137 pediatricians who handed out her simple 24-item checklist to all parents bringing in babies for routine one-year checkups. The questionnaire, called the “Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Profile Infant-Toddler Checklist,” took the parents about 5 minutes to complete. It included such questions as “Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?” and “How many blocks or rings does your child stack?” The pediatricians then reviewed the checklist (a 2-minute process), flagging those babies who scored below a pre-set threshold. The checklist was developed in 2002 by Amy Wetherby and Barry Prizant and validated by a previous study.

In all nearly 10,500 children were screened, and 346 were flagged as at risk for autism and referred to an autism clinic for further evaluation. The children were followed to age 3, by which time the screen had accurately predicted autism or other developmental delays about 75 percent of the time. This suggests that the questionnaire or a similar refinement would be useful for earlier identification of ASD and other developmental delays that benefit from early intervention. It also highlights the ease of putting an early infant screening program for autism into practice.

Underscoring the importance of early intervention to improve outcomes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its autism prevalence figures to 1 in 88 U.S. children. A recent Autism Speaks funded analysis established autism’s cost to the nation at $126 billion a year.