Early identification of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is essential. It can improve opportunities for children to benefit from intervention and lessen the burden on concerned parents.
Therapeutic interventions are most effective if applied early. Yet, diagnosis often remains delayed, partly because the diagnosis is based on identifying abnormal behaviors that may not emerge until the disorder is well established.
Early identification can be achieved via single-time autism screening in the general population. Many early autism screening tools exhibit limited accuracy and sensitivity. In some cases, these autism assessment tools have limited reporting of sufficient psychometrics to determine overall diagnostic accuracy, particularly in community-based samples.
Considering the need for improved early autism identification tools, La Trobe University scientists have developed an early screening tool for autism. Their tool, named- Social Attention and Communication Surveillance-Revise (SACS-R)- is considered the world’s most effective autism screening tool.
The diagnostic accuracy of the tool was determined over 13,500 Victorian children. Scientists found the SACS-R to be highly accurate in identifying very young children on the autism spectrum.
Of the infants and toddlers aged 12 to 24 months identified at ‘high likelihood’ for an autism diagnosis by the tool, 83 percent were later diagnosed with autism.
When used alongside a SACS-Preschool check (SACS- PR), 96 percent of children on the autism spectrum were identified by their 3.5-year health check.
Lead researcher, Associate Professor Josephine Barbaro, from La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC), said the research points to the critical need for the SACS-R and SACS-Preschool to be rolled out across Australia and the world as part of regular infant health checks.”
“Putting this extremely effective tool in the hands of a trained primary health professional, so that during their routine health checks they are also monitoring for autism, makes a huge difference to early diagnosis.”
“Not only is SACS-R the world’s most effective screening tool, unlike many, it can be used within the community on large populations, enabling early identification of very young children across the board.”
La Trobe Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar AO said, “the screening tool is an excellent example of high-impact research that can make a tangible difference to people’s lives.”
“Early autism identification using this tool has already changed the lives of thousands of children and their families around the world.”
“An extraordinary contribution by La Trobe’s autism experts, this new research will likely lead to even more countries adopting the tool and embedding screening programs into their health systems.”
Developed over 15 years by Associate Professor Barbaro, the tool is used to identify a set of behaviors that are characteristic of children on the spectrum from as young as 11 months old, including infrequent or inconsistent use of:
- gestures, like waving and pointing at objects
- response to name being called
- eye contact
- imitation or copying others’ activities
- sharing interest with others
- pretend play
- Josephine Barbaro et al. Diagnostic Accuracy of the Social Attention and Communication Surveillance–Revised With Preschool Tool for Early Autism Detection in Very Young Children. DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.46415