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Autism detection method administered inconsistently, BYU study finds

Posted at 7:18 PM, Jan 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-22 21:18:08-05

PROVO, Utah — A new study from Brigham Young University psychology professor Terisa Gabrielsen found that the method for detecting autism in young children is being administered inconsistently.

The current screening process used is the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, or M-CHAT.

"It's a simple 20 question questionnaire that asks about basic development that we're looking for that's very specific to red flags for Autism," Gabrielsen said.

She added that the M-CHAT is effective in detecting autism, but her study found that providers are administering it inconsistently among children.

"When we get out into the real world and we're using the M-CHAT, some of the rigor gets left behind," she said.

The study shows that while 73% of children were screened for autism at least once, only 54% were screened at both the 18- and 24-month check-ups. The disparity in detection is especially prevalent in Hispanic children, and kids from lower socioeconomic statuses. Gabrielsen said the lack of follow-up can create problems for children who initially pass the M-CHAT screening, but are later diagnosed with autism.

"Even though the screen didn't show concern, concerns were there," she said. "The bottom line is the screen is a good tool, but if you have concerns and the screen doesn't show them, keep following your instincts and keep seeking help."

The missed opportunity to catch autism early creates challenges for both parents and children.

"Early intervention really is key, and that's true of any medical condition any psychological condition," Gabrielsen added. "It's absolutely key that you get help as soon as you can."

She said children who are diagnosed later in life are still able to get the help and resources they need to live happy and successful lives, but early intervention is a more efficient way of administering those resources.

"If we can capitalize on that intense developmental phase of the brain, and we can get developmental trajectories back on track in that early age kids have a quicker, easier path to full inclusion," Gabrielsen said.

Gabrielsen is part of an interdisciplinary cohort at BYU called Autism Connect. The group works to build bridges between several fields of study like medicine, education and psychology to find a more holistic approach to treating autism.