July 18, 2019 | 85° F

Rutgers professor heads study into onset detection of Autism

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It is difficult to detect autism since there is no benchmark for what the disorder looks like among different children. The newly developed questionnaire has had an 88 percent chance of correctly identifying autism across different socioeconomic groups.

One in 68 children in communities across America have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2014 show that this number ranges from 1 in 175 children identified with the disorder in Alabama, to 1 in 45 identified in New Jersey.

Researchers at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School have developed a questionnaire that could help doctors detect autism in toddlers more efficiently, according to Rutgers Today.

“Even though autism awareness is high in New Jersey and we have some excellent resources, too many children, especially from low-income communities, are identified late,” Walter Zahorodny, an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and lead investigator for the study, said.

The 2-minute survey, called the Psychological Development Questionnaire (PDQ-1), had an 88 percent chance of correctly identifying ASD among toddlers who screened positive, Zahorodny said.

The study was published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics

Rutgers Today reported that 1,959 children between the ages of 18 and 36 months participated in the study. Children with low PDQ-1 scores were considered at risk for ASD, and received developmental evaluations to determine if they were on the autism spectrum. The test identified autism in children from a variety of socioeconomic groups.

Zahorodny said early detection of ASD is challenging — as no single approach is likely to be reliable for all children — but the new study is promising. The findings provide preliminary evidence in support of PDQ-1, which could provide an eventual alternative to the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers and its follow-up which requires a telephone interview in addition to screening.

The study was conducted in two phases.

The first phase involved investigating test reliability and identifying things like a risk-threshold score. Phase two involved the aforementioned screenings, followed by children who screened positive being referred for “diagnostic evaluation.” At age 4, screened children had a follow-up appointment to identify autism cases previously missed and to specify properties of the test.

The study concluded that the findings offer preliminary empirical support for PDQ-1, and suggest that it might be a useful addition to “developmental surveillance of autism.”

“Diagnosis of autism can only be accomplished through comprehensive evaluation by a professional,” Zahorodny said. “Effective screening is but the first step toward diagnosis. If we want to improve early detection, easy-to-use and reliable autism screeners need to be widely used.”

Ryan Stiesi

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