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Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences
Early intervention can significantly improve developmental outcomes for children with autism.
One in 50 school-aged children in the United States is diagnosed with autism, according to statistics recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ann Mastergeorge, associate professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona, is leading a statewide effort to educate parents, health-care providers and other professionals about how to identify the signs of autism in very young children and how early intervention can help.
Mastergeorge recently was appointed by the CDC as the Act Early Ambassador for Arizona, one of 25 states participating in the initiative, which focuses on early identification of autism and other developmental disabilities. April is National Autism Awareness Month.
Autism – a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired communication and social interaction and behavioral challenges – most often is diagnosed around age 3 or 4, but potential signs of the disorder often appear much earlier, by a child's first birthday, Mastergeorge said.
"We know that we can identify signs in children as young as 6 months of age, not that they have autism but they have signs," Mastergeorge said. "There are specific criteria that we look for at 6 months, at 12 months, at 18 months. We can catch these children very, very young and provide them with intensive early interventions, and it makes a huge difference in terms of their developmental outcomes."
Although there is no known cure for autism, early intervention can significantly improve a child's social and communication skills, Mastergeorge said.
Interventions might include in-home "parent-mediator interventions," in which parents and therapists work together to engage children in activities that promote social play, like turn-taking games. Also important are interventions that place children with autism in the same space with typically developing children, who can provide important motivation for social interaction, Mastergeorge said.
"It's not that children with autism can't learn to interact. They just don't have the steps for interacting," Mastergeorge said. "We have to recruit them into activities with much more vigilance that you would with a child who doesn't have autism, so we utilize parents and other children and we have teachers involved as well."
The cause of autism is not entirely clear, although a number of environmental, biologic and genetic factors are believed to contribute to risk. For example, children who have a sibling or parent with an autism spectrum disorder are at greater risk for developing autism themselves.
Through her work as an Act Early Ambassador, Mastergeorge hopes to raise awareness of the early signs of autism by providing education materials, like simple child-development checklists, to parents, pediatricians and other professionals, like therapists, teachers and child-care providers. Materials are available in both English and Spanish.
Mastergeorge also will provide "train the trainer" classes to other individuals statewide who are interested in helping to educate people about early autism awareness.
"The goal is to develop an Act Early team across the state," she said.
The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased significantly since 2002, when the CDC reported that autism affected about one in 150 children nationwide.
In Arizona, it's estimated that about one in 64 children are now diagnosed with the disorder.
Early indicators of autism vary and may include the following, according to the science and advocacy organization Autism Speaks:
Mastergeorge's work with the CDC is an extension of her ongoing research at the UA looking at early autism intervention.
She is conducting her work as an Act Early ambassador in collaboration with UA's Sonoran UCEDD – which stands for University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities Education, Research and Service – and with the UA College of Medicine's ArizonaLEND program – which stands for Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities.
"We don't know how to cure autism, but there is so much optimism for children who have early signs, or even have autism," Mastergeorge said. "We have wonderful interventions that make huge differences. There's a lot of hope."
Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences