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New screening tool to help detect babies and toddlers born with autism spectrum disorder

ABC Health logoABC Health 6/09/2018
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All Victorian maternal and child health nurses will be trained to detect early signs of autism spectrum disorder in babies and toddlers during their routine health checks.

Senior research fellow at La Trobe University, Josephine Barbaro, said the screening tool was the most accurate one available.

With an 82 per cent accuracy of autism diagnosis it is more than seven times more accurate than current testing.

Based at the University's Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC), Dr Barbaro said early detection in babies and toddlers can make an "incredible difference".

She said children aged two or under detected with autism had a 25 per cent increase in their cognitive skills and were better integrated into mainstream schools.

"[They are] integrated amongst other children their own age much better than children who are diagnosed later," Dr Barbaro said.

What does the training involve?

The training will be rolled out to all maternal and child health nurses across the state by OTARC, helped along by just over $1 million in funding from the Victorian State Government.

Thirteen years in development the surveillance methodology involves training child health care specialists to looking for social communication behaviours.

The tool identifies a set of behaviours, or red flags, that are characteristic of children with autism from as young as 12 months old.

Some of those behaviours include infrequent or inconsistent use of eye contact across different settings, imitation such as copying actions, gestures such as waving or nodding, and response to being called by name.

At 24 months, some of the behavioural traits include looking at frequent or inconsistent pretend play such as feeding a teddy, and pointing at things out of reach.

"They're very much focused around sharing a child's world with others and responding to others' social needs," Dr Barbaro said.

She said the training was key to early detection coupled with ongoing monitoring across the child's second year of life.

Equipping parents with intervention skills

While children can start showing signs of autism from the moment they are born, most are not detected until later in childhood.

Dr Barbaro said the new testing could reliably detect signs of difference between children with and without autism and then provide a reliable diagnosis between the ages of 18 to 24 months with specialist expertise.

This would provide much relief for parents who are blamed for children that presented as "different", according to Dr Barbaro.

"We want to highlight the fact that their child may actually have autism and that we can actually do something about it," she said.

Along with the recognition of early signs, the program will help equip parents with some basic intervention skills and play-base skills within the family home.

"[The skills] improve that child's outcome and likelihood to go to school and to be employed in the future as well," Dr Barbaro said.

Parents will also be assisted with appropriate referral options to appropriate specialists.

The training will be rolled across Victoria early next year.

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