Faster Answers: Early Autism Screening, Rapid Diagnosis Is Helping Families Across Arizona

Zander and his family received a formal autism evaluation in just three days as a result of SARRC’s Arizona Autism Early Diagnostic Network (AAEDN).

At Zander’s three-year check-up, his pediatrician expressed concerns about his language. So the family scheduled an appointment with their local school district to discuss an individualized education plan for preschool. 

That was the first time Zander’s mother, Meredith, had heard the term ASD. She started learning more about autism spectrum disorder, and a family member told her she needed a formal diagnosis. 

A local hospital said the wait time was 18 months to two years. A local medical group told her they could see Zander in 2 1/2 months. While that was an improvement, Meredith continued to research.

Early one morning, she sent SARRC an email, and within 24 hours, she received a call back. 

“That was unheard of with what we were experiencing,” Meredith says. She answered questions about Zander’s speech and development over the phone. Based on the results of that screening, SARRC secured the family an evaluation appointment — for just three days later. 

This is a result of SARRC’s Arizona Autism Early Diagnostic Network (AAEDN), which is helping to alleviate long waitlist times for families seeking diagnostic evaluations for autism. 

About the Network 

The AAEDN began with SARRC’s efforts a few years ago to have pediatricians conduct autism screening questionnaires at well-child visits for kids up to age 3. Then, if indicated, families came to SARRC for a formal evaluation. 

“We were able to see kids and get them diagnosed — well before the age of 3. The average age of diagnosis was about 22 months,” explains Christopher J. Smith, Ph.D., chief science officer at SARRC. “We showed that the screening and referral process worked well.” 

But SARRC’s dedicated evaluators were only part of a temporary grant-funded project. It was clear to the SARRC team that early screening was critical, but so were psychologists who could evaluate kids. To perform evaluations without grant funding, SARRC would need to rely on public or private funds to pay for the evaluations. That makes the process take longer. Scaling the program would be difficult, if not impossible. 

“We wanted a sustainable program that could scale and help more people,” Dr. Smith says. “The answer was to build a diagnostic evaluator network—a network of psychologists in the community who are licensed and trained to diagnose autism in young kids.” 

SARRC continues to partner with pediatricians to distribute the screening questionnaire. If that yields any red flags, families are referred to SARRC, where a diagnostic coordinator helps families like Meredith’s get appointments with providers who take their insurance and are in their geographic area.

This way, SARRC doesn’t need to hire more psychologists to meet the needs of the pediatrician screening network. “We just coordinate the referrals. We work on the families’ behalf and get the evaluation scheduled,” Smith says. 

Getting Answers 

SARRC connected Meredith’s family with licensed psychologist Carol McLean, Ph.D., who specializes in early childhood development and autism.  Dr. Carol McLean, Ph.D.

Dr. McLean diagnosed Zander with ASD Level 2, and said she’d have a written report to Meredith and her husband within five days. 

“We commit to having the report to families within two weeks, but try to get them out as quickly as possible,” Dr. McLean notes. “We tell parents the same day what the results are and give them an outline of next steps. But that report is what they need. It’s a clinical document designed to help them access the maximum amount of services possible. It’s a key that opens the doors to move forward.”

It did exactly that for Zander’s family. 

“We were able to get approved for DDD (Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities) assistance. Zander (now 3 1/2) is in a developmental preschool and doing great, and he’s started speech and occupational therapy and music therapy as well,” Meredith says. 

Getting kids screened early is critical. “If we miss these windows, it changes the trajectory of their life,” Dr. McLean adds. “These waitlists break my heart. SARRC does such a beautiful job connecting different parts of the community. I love the infrastructure they’re developing to bring together providers from around the state to help.” 

Meredith hopes more families can benefit from the AAEDN. 

“In our case, it was perfect. The stars aligned,” she says. “Every piece of literature I’ve read says the thing that is most effective is early intervention.” 

Thanks to these early interventions, she can rest easier. 

“I have every hope in my heart and in my mind that Zander will be fine,” she says. “He’s an amazing person.”

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE EARLY INTERVENTION SERVICES AVAILABLE AT SARRC

  • Do you suspect autism? If you or someone you know suspects autism, we encourage you to contact SARRC’s Family Resource Team to discuss availability and your options at 602.606.9806
  • Through our Easy Access Autism Screening program, access a fast developmental screening with our team: Learn more »
  • Attend Milestones, a free program offering information on developmental milestones for parents of infants ages 6 to 18 months: Learn more »
  • Attend Free Online Family Orientation, which connects parents to current information and resources related to ASD: Learn more »