There were signs that something wasn’t quite right when Scott Badesch’s son was quite young.
The boy’s speech was delayed. He sometimes isolated himself. He had trouble looking another person in the eye.
Badesch’s son was screened and then diagnosed with a number of disorders.
It wasn’t until the boy was 11 that he was properly diagnosed with autism.
For Badesch, this is no small matter.
If his son had been diagnosed at a younger age, he could have begun behavioral treatment earlier. His teachers could have seated the child in the front row and not been upset if he didn’t make eye contact with them.
That’s why Badesch, now the president and chief executive officer of the Autism Society, is in favor of screening all toddlers for the disorder.
“I think it’s essential,” he told Healthline. “To suggest otherwise is irresponsible.”
Recommendation on Hold
The topic has been one of the top issues in the autism community since mid-February.
That’s when the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force announced “current evidence is insufficient” for the panel to make a recommendation on whether all children between the ages of 18 and 30 months should be screened for autism.
Dr. David Grossman, the vice chair of the task force, told Healthline the panel isn’t necessarily against early screening, but it wants more research done before they decide whether to tell doctors it’s a good idea.
Grossman said there are definitely benefits to early screening and it’s a quick and safe medical assessment, but there are potential downsides, too.
He said the screening tests are all behavioral observations. There are no brain scans or blood tests that can diagnosis autism. Therefore, all the screenings need to be consistent and thorough.
He added there is solid evidence behavioral therapy and other treatments are effective on older children with autism, but more research is needed to determine if these therapies work as well on younger children.
Grossman added there is also the issue of resources and time.
“Doctors have to make decisions on priorities,” he pointed out.
The Arguments in Favor
Officials within the autism community, however, say the evidence is clear.
Dr. Phillip C. DeMio, the chief medical officer at the U.S. Autism & Asperger Association, told Healthline that pediatricians currently screen infants and toddlers for a variety of issues, including lead poisoning.
He added the screening for autism is quick, easy, painless, and safe.
With the autism rate clearly rising in the U.S., DeMio sees no reason to wait any longer to make the early screenings a standard practice.
“Instead of doctors fighting each other, let’s err on the side of safety,” he said.
DeMio has personal experience with the disorder. He has a practice in Ohio that specializes in autism spectrum disorders.
He said the behavioral screenings can detect symptoms such as lack of eye contact in children before they learn to walk or crawl.
“I’ve seen children as young as seven and a half months who clearly have autism,” he said.
He adds there are treatments that work on infants and toddlers that can significantly mitigate the symptoms of autism.
These can help a person lead a more productive life as an adult.
“They should get therapy as early as possible and it should be as intense as it can be,” he said.
Parents Should Know
DeMio has another personal reason for his interest in the subject.
He has a 16-year-old son with autism.
DeMio said his son was first diagnosed with a hearing impairment. He was prepared to send his son to programs for children with hearing loss when he was given the diagnosis of autism.
Like DeMio and Badesch, Dr. Janet Lintala also has professional and personal reasons for her interest in the topic.
She has a 21-year-old son with autism. She’s also written a book on the subject called “The Un-Prescription for Autism.”
She thinks early screening will detect autism at a young age in boys as well as girls, whose symptoms she said are sometimes ignored.
“We need to reach everyone,” she told Healthline.
Lintala said a young child’s brain is pliable so it can adapt to treatments more easily than an older child.
“Why wait a few years,” she said. “With early treatment, children can have a happier and healthier life. Earlier is better.”