Study Finds That Missed Early Well-Child Visits Lead to Delayed Autism Diagnosis

Early diagnosis of autism is key to ensuring a good quality of life for a child on the spectrum. Research shows that there are cognitive, communication, and behavioral benefits when a child is diagnosed at a young age and can take advantage of interventions. A new study finds that if you want to ensure an earlier diagnosis, though, it’s very important not to miss well-child visits.

Researchers at the University of Virginia analyzed data on more than 250 children diagnosed with autism in the state, finding that those who had missed key well-child visits were diagnosed much later than children who did not. The study can be found in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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Dr. Pam DeGuzman, lead author and University of Virginia School of Nursing professor, says, “Lots of parents may not understand these visits’ value, once childhood vaccinations are complete, but research has firmly established that kids who are diagnosed early with autism fare far better down the line the sooner interventions are made available to them.”

The research team looked at data on 253 children born in Virginia in 2011 who were later diagnosed with autism. They found that on average, these children missed more than half of the doctor’s visits recommended during early childhood, with only 20% attending their 30-month well-child visit. Furthermore, those who missed the 24-month, 30-month, and three-year visits were diagnosed an average of more than nine months later than those who had not missed those appointments. This could put them at a developmental disadvantage.

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Dr. Micah Mazurek, research team member and director of UVA’s Supporting Transformative Autism Research Initiative, explains, “The longer we wait to diagnose autism, the more we’re missing out on that developmental window to provide interventions… If children aren’t even making it into the clinic, their needs may not be identified as early as possible.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says well-child visits should occur at 12, 15, 18, 24, 30, 36, and 48 months of age. One of the key reasons is to ensure development is normal. Dr. DeGuzman and her team say for autism diagnoses, it’s especially important to attend all of the visits in the 2- to 4-year range.

Research has found that a reliable diagnosis can be made before the age of 2, with interventions available that are tailored to this age group. The average age of diagnosis, however, is when the child is between 4 and 5 years of age.

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