Early Childhood

Preschoolers With Autism Can Be Caught Early by Child Care Providers, Study Finds

By Christina A. Samuels — June 03, 2015 2 min read
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Cross-posted from On Special Education

Early education providers can be a good option for detecting autism spectrum disorder in minority children, a population that has been traditionally been underserved by early-intervention programs, according to a recent study.

The researchers, based in New Jersey, reached out to Head Start programs and other state-licensed providers in low-income, high-minority cities in the state. The child-care workers screened 90 percent of the children whose parents gave permission for them to participate; most of the children were black or Hispanic and between ages 3 and 5.

The workers used questionnaires that asked about child behaviors, such as whether the child looks people in the eye, responds to his or her name, or engages in pretend play. They didn’t receive any special training; the forms are mean to be simple to use.

Catching Problems Early

The children who were flagged for concern were then given a more thorough evaluation, with parent permission. Overall, 3 percent of the children in the sample ended up meeting diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder. And, the study notes, not one of those children had been previously identified, even though the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children be screened at no later than 18 months.

A portion of the children who were flagged were found not to have autism, but a speech/language disorder that could also benefit from early intervention, the study found.

Significantly, about a third of the children who were flagged were lost to followup, either because their addresses or phone numbers were incorrect or the families didn’t respond to inquiries. Other parents declined to have their children officially evaluated. So a lack of early screening is not the only barrier to treatment.

Child-Care Providers Willing Participants

But the results suggest that child-care workers can be an important part of a broad diagnostic net for children who might not otherwise get early intervention services, said Dr. Jill F. Harris, a study co-author and the director of program development at Children’s Specialized Hospital in Fanwood, N.J.

And that’s important, because pediatricians and medical providers vary in how closely they follow the screening guidelines, Harris said. “If your feeling is that the pediatricians are going to do this, you’re going to be missing some cases,” she said.

Head Start is uniquely suited for these screenings because it already provides developmental checks as part of its program. However, other child-care centers have been eager to learn more and to participate, Harris said. Early-childhood providers are “a very hungry group for information. I think it’s a natural fit, because they do have exposure to large groups of kids.”

Screening for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Underserved Communities: Early Childcare Providers as Reporters was published online in May on the website of the journal Autism.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.