As part of autism awareness month, the Mississippi Early Childhood Inclusion Center at The University of Southern Mississippi, Institute for Disability Studies will hold a “Screening for Autism Day” in seven cities throughout the state.
To ensure that children in Mississippi have access to early screening, Mississippi Early Childhood Inclusion Center (MECIC) will conduct screening for children ages 5 years and under in the following cities: Cleveland, Tupelo, Jackson, Hernando, Hattiesburg, Natchez, and Biloxi from 3 until 6 p.m. on April 25. Resources and referrals to agencies such as First Steps and the public schools will be provided to parents.
“The incidence of autism continues to rise in our country,” said Dr. Alicia Westbrook, MECIC director. The latest numbers from the Center for Disease Control indicate that 1 in 68 children are identified as having an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Intellectual ability varies, but about half of all children identified with ASD have average to above average intelligence. Symptoms that are common across all levels of ASD include poor social interaction, highly focused interests and/or repetitive behaviors, and difficulty communicating with others.
Some children with ASD may not use speech to communicate. Others may have developed speech but have difficulties indicating their needs, wants and feelings to others. “Even from a very early age, we find that back and forth or relational communication is very difficult for children with autism” stated Westbrook.
“Because early intervention can be very effective in treating ASD, it is important that we identify children early in life. The first three years of life are the most important for intervention,” said Westbrook. “Yet, the average age for identification is 4. We can do better. Children with autism can be identified as young as two, with some symptoms occurring earlier than that.”
The first step in the identification process is screening. A screen is a short test to tell if children are on track with their development. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that all children be screened for developmental delays at their 9, 18, 24 or 30-month well-baby visits. Children should be specifically screened for autism at 18 and 24 months.
Dr. Leslie LaVergne, Mississippi’s Act Early Ambassador, notes: “Developmental monitoring and screening is a very important and pro-active role families and health professionals can take. On-going monitoring and regular screening can help track typical milestones and identify areas of concern early in a child’s life. Early identification opens the door for early interventions, which are key to increasing positive outcomes for children and their family’s overall wellbeing.”
Children who show problems on a developmental or autism screen are referred for a comprehensive evaluation or diagnosis. A team of professionals, including a physician or child psychiatrist who is specifically trained to identify autism, should be available along with other team members to conduct a diagnostic evaluation.
According to Dr. Beth Felder, physician on the MECIC diagnostic team, “A medical doctor will be able to rule out other medical disorders or check for genetic or neurological problems that might co-exist with ASD. An M.D. or D.O. can also determine if medication is a viable option and explain to parents the types of medical interventions and diets that are most commonly referred to in the literature about ASD.”
For more information you can go to the Institute’s website www.usm.edu/disability-studies or call 601.266.6225.