Lucie van den Berg
MOST Australian children are not diagnosed with autism until they are four, but new evidence highlights the importance of an early diagnosis.
Findings from two new studies reveal children diagnosed with the neurodevelopmental condition when they were two years old were more likely to attend mainstream primary schools.
They also had better cognitive and language skills when they were seven to nine years old than those diagnosed later.
The La Trobe University research also found it wasn’t a matter of how much therapy a child received, but rather the age they first got it that made a difference to their long-term outlook.
Researcher Dr Megan Clark said sometimes parents and the medical community were hesitant to diagnose a child as being on the autism spectrum too early in life.
“Currently in Australia, only 3 per cent of children are diagnosed as early as 24 months,” Ms Clark said.
“We found, of the children diagnosed early, 73 per cent continued to meet the criteria for autism from toddlerhood through to school age, so it is possible to conclude that an early diagnosis is reliable and stable.”
The study found three-quarters of children who were detected early went to a mainstream primary school, compared with 57 per cent diagnosed later.
“Often, one of the first questions around diagnosis is: ‘Will my child be able to attend a mainstream school?’ And our findings are encouraging for parents,” Dr Clark said.
“Autism is a lifelong condition, but we know early intervention improves children’s ability to communicate and their cognition.”
The study compared 48 children diagnosed at 18 months with 37 children detected after three.
A maternal health nurse was the first to notice signs of autism in Steve and Toni Sullivan’s son, Jaidyn.
At 24 months, he was officially diagnosed, triggering the start of speech and occupational therapy and home interventions.
“He’s been through the works, but it has paid off,” Mr Sullivan said.
Jaidyn, now 12, has an aid in a mainstream primary school, but will soon attend high school on his own.
“He’s a fantastic kid and we are quite optimistic that he will have a normal life, if there’s such a thing as that,” Mr Sullivan said.