ABC15: Early Autism Screening Proves To Be a Success for Children with Developmental Delays

Story by Karla Navarrete

PHOENIX — Early autism screening proves to be a success for children with developmental delays; getting intervention at an earlier age.

With the prevalence of autism in children, it is a standard given that early intervention is key. According to the Centers for Disease and Control, one in every 59 children is diagnosed with autism.

That is why five years ago, the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center set out to partner with 109 pediatricians across the Valley to be able to screen and flag children at 12, 18, and 24-month check-ups. The results helped bring the average age of diagnosis from five years of age to three.

[WATCH: Early autism screening proves to be a success for children with developmental delays]

"We followed the Get SET model which stands for Screen, Evaluation, and Treatment," said Christopher Smith, Ph.D., Director of Research at SARRC.

Children, like Claire McDonald of North Phoenix, are now receiving interventional therapies like applied behavioral analysis, physical, and speech therapies, to name a few.

"She's come such a long way, such a long way," says Katie McDonald, Claire's mother.

Claire has been receiving services at SARRC's preschool program, where some of the key therapies are implemented through typical peer play. Claire is graduating from the preschool in one month.

"She was nonverbal, transitioning items from the hall to tile all day, lining things up, no imaginative play, no interest in others. Now she's verbal; she's playing with her peers, it's so great to see," added McDonald.

Katie was first alerted about her daughter's developmental delays when she took Claire for her 12-month check up at her pediatrician's office.

Christopher Smith Ph.D., the Director of Research at SARRC, said through the Get Set Model, SARRC partnered with 109 pediatric offices to provide screenings. A particular score on the screening, which was basically a questionnaire filled out by the parents, provided a 'flagging' which would then, in turn, mark the child for a free evaluation for autism.

"About 80 percent of the 700 children flagged received a diagnosis for autism," he added, "If we are not waiting until age two or three to flag kids at pediatrician's offices, now we can start the whole process towards diagnosis and intervention that much earlier if we can screen effectively at 12 months.”

Getting a 'flagged' screening also meant that these children were able to get an autism screening right away. Usually, the wait time for an evaluation can be up to one or two years.

Dr. Smith said because they were able to get diagnosed early and because they were able to get interventions started earlier, they have opportunities that children who were diagnosed much later don't have.

Now, Claire is on her way to kindergarten, only needing special education services half of her kinder day.