Autism shows first signs in under-twos but more funding needed to aid diagnosis

Warning signs of autism spectrum disorders can now be identified in the second year of life, increasing the likelihood of children receiving early treatment to help them to overcome the social, behavioural and cognitive difficulties associated with these conditions, according to a psychologist specialising in the area.

Autism expert Associate Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, a member of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), said that demand was strong for a pioneering early diagnosis clinic established in Melbourne last year. But a lack of funding meant the clinic, the first of its kind in Australia, was only able to operate one day a week with the help of philanthropic funding.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) affect about one in every 100 children. They are neurodevelopmental disorders that are characterised by difficulties in social communication and language, accompanied by restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. Difficulties often associated with ASDs include anxiety and sleep disorders.

Associate Professor Dissanayake said that research had shown that the earlier autism was treated, the better the outcome for the child – especially if intervention commenced before the age of three. But the disorders were too often not accurately identified until later, such as after the child started school, or their families had spent many stressful years searching for answers.

She said: “The earlier children get the right intervention, the greater the gains they can make to overcome the disability. It is striking that those who were youngest when intervention began have made the most progress a year later.”

Writing in the June edition of InPsych, the bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, Associate Professor Dissanayake said that a recent study showed that training maternal and child health nurses was an effective means of monitoring for subtle warning signs, such as the absence of eye contact, smiles, pointing and play.

More than 80 per cent of the children referred for expert help as part of the trial were later found to have autism. Almost all of the other children had a developmental or language delay, or both. 

Associate Professor Dissanayake, Director of the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University, said there was not a set pattern for the onset of autism.

She said: “Some children show signs from birth, while others will develop normally and then stall, or others regress, losing skills they have previously developed.  This is why monitoring over time is important, so that warning signs can be reliably picked up.”

Associate Professor Dissanayake said:  “Early identification, diagnosis and intervention makes for better long-term outcomes, greater independence, decreased burden on families and the community and better quality of life for children and their parents. We now have the means to identify children with autism early enough to get them help that can be life changing.”

“We do not know the causes of autism, and we have no cure, so intervention to enhance development and reduce symptoms is of crucial importance,” she said.

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Notes to editors:  Health professionals can be trained to detect the absence of important social communication behaviours in children aged 12-24 months. The warning signs include: Reduced and atypical eye contact

  • Failure to couple eye contact with other communicative behaviours, such as smiles
  • Reduced social smiles
  • Failure to initiate pointing, particularly to show/share
  • Failure to follow a point
  • Reduced or no response to name call
  • Lack of imitative behaviours, including waving bye-bye etc
  • Limited or no pretend play

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The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.