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Quick trips to the doctor may fail to detect autism.
A team of researchers at Brigham Young University and the autism research center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia released the finding Monday.
The takeaway is important because intervention in toddlers can vastly improve how they function throughout life, scientists say.
The BYU study determined that 10 minutes of observation isn't enough. For many autistic children, impairments may go unnoticed or fail to surface, so doctors forgo referring them for further testing, lead author Terisa Gabrielsen said in a prepared statement. As a result, she said, autism may go unidentified until the child starts school.
"This means that they have missed out on some prime years for intervention that can change a child's outcome," Gabrielsen said.
Some children show telltale signs, added co-author Judith Miller. But for others, "more time with a specialist may be critical."
Nationally, one in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, for which there is no known cause, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the study, researchers watched 10-minute videos of doctor's visits with 15- to 33-month-olds. They recorded rates of typical and abnormal behaviors among autistic children, others with speech delays and a final category of typical children. They then compared the behaviors to doctors' referral rates.
For parents, bringing kids in for early autisms screenings is key, researchers say. Children should undergo formal screenings between the ages of 18 months and 2-years-old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But not all providers have adopted universal screening.
Gabrielsen hopes the finding "can really empower parents" to voice any concerns to providers. "They're the experts for their children," she said.
Funding for the study came from the University of Utah Department of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control.
Basic autism-screening tools for parents:
M-CHAT-R checklist: https://www.m-chat.org/mchat.php
CDC's Learn the Signs: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/