We can’t catch ‘em all; or can we?

Have you ever worked with one of those “quirky” children and thought, “I wonder how he’ll do later?” I mean, sometimes a quirk is just that, but how do we know when a quirk is something more? And why does it matter? Well, we know that early identification (for purposes of securing early intervention) is important for children with autism. But the false-negative rate from screening might be as high as 60% in some cases. That means that some children with autism are not being caught before school age, either because their symptoms aren’t that bad, or the skills they do have are compensating for the deficits. Without a crystal ball, what can we do for those kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks? The authors of this study looked to compare results of the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) in two groups of children with ASD: early diagnosed (before age 5), and late diagnosed (after age 5).

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They found no statistically significant difference between groups in Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) scores or ADI-R scores, although the early diagnosed group had marginally worse communication scores and more often flagged on items such as “used another’s body to communicate”, repetitive use of objects/parts of objects, and pronominal reversal (when children use "he", "she", "you", or their own name instead of “I” or “me”). The later diagnosed group had fewer symptoms and better communication, but again these differences were marginal.

The authors also found some trends between groups in terms of demographics. Children who were Hispanic, of racial minority, had an additional diagnosis such as ADHD, and/or had higher verbal and full-scale IQs were significantly more likely to be diagnosed later.

Now, if you forget the rest of this review, remember this part: in comparing individual items from the ADI-R, there were five symptoms that ALL of the later-diagnosed children displayed. “Deficits in:

  • reciprocal conversation
  • offering to share
  • imaginative play with peers
  • social verbalization/chatting and
  • showing/directing attention.”

What is interesting about these symptoms is that they were all negative. In other words, kids diagnosed later seemed to “not do” stuff they should have, rather than do extra stuff that would raise a concern (like flapping or showing repetitive interests). The authors suggest that “attention to deficits in these behaviors may facilitate earlier identification of ASD without other obvious impairments.” Completing or referring for a more formal assessment when you notice a child has these symptoms could make a difference in outcomes for these children.

*Note: some skills, like being able to have a back-and-forth conversation, aren’t a major concern if toddlers haven’t quite mastered them, but if a child is still demonstrating these deficits by preschool, make that referral!

Goodwin, A., Matthews, N. L., & Smith, C. J. (2018). Parent-reported early symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children without intellectual disability who were diagnosed at school age. Autism. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/1362361318777243