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Teachers ID Undiagnosed Preschoolers

May 19, 2012


Investigators found that preschool and daycare teachers can easily and effectively screen children for autism. The screening program, tried in a half-dozen low-income communities, identified many previously undiagnosed children. The researchers presented their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR) this week.

Autism experts have long noted that diagnosis rates are lower and age of diagnosis higher in low-income communities. As a result, many poor children with autism miss out on valuable early intervention. The researchers were looking for creative ways to identify these hard-to-reach children.

“We found that unless we go out into underserved communities, we are going to be missing many children who have autism,” says lead researcher Yvette Janvier, M.D. Janvier is a developmental pediatrician and the medical director of Children's Specialized Hospital, in Tom’s River, NJ.

The investigators asked preschool and daycare teachers to complete either the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (M-CHAT) or the Social Communication Questionnaire. These behavior checklists identify children at high risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). At-risk children are then referred for a full evaluation by a doctor or therapist.

The study included more than 1,000 screenings conducted in preschools and daycares in low-income New Jersey neighborhoods. The children’s average age was just over 4 years. None were previously diagnosed with autism. The screenings led to an ASD diagnosis for nearly 1 in 33, or 3 percent, of the children.

The CDC’s recently updated estimate of national ASD prevalence is 1 in 88. The CDC rate is based on the use of autism services. As a result, it misses unidentified and untreated persons with autism.

“This New Jersey study underscores that many children with autism are likely going undiagnosed, especially in underserved populations,” says Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks associate director of public health research and scientific review. “Recent research in South Korea showed that direct screening in general education classrooms dramatically improved the detection of children with autism.” That study was funded by Autism Speaks, which is now funding a similar study of direct community screening in the U.S.

In addition, Autism Speaks’ new Move the Needle initiative is dedicated to lowering the age of diagnosis and increasing access to early intervention services in all communities. This includes closing the diagnosis and treatment gap seen in many ethnic-minority and low-income communities. You can explore related Autism Speaks funded studies using our Grant Search. This research would not be possible without the support of our families, donors and volunteers.