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'It’s a wake-up call for public health decision makers'

Israeli study finds early autism diagnosis dramatically boosts child’s prospects

Two-thirds of children diagnosed by age 2.5 improve by two or more points on autism severity scale; after this age, fewer than a quarter make similar improvement

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: an isolated child. (iStock via Getty Images)
Illustrative image: an isolated child. (iStock via Getty Images)

An Israeli study has found that earlier diagnosis of autism can dramatically improve a child’s prospects, in what its author is calling a “wake-up call.”

The research found that two-thirds of children diagnosed with autism by age two-and-a-half make strong improvements, as opposed to only 23 percent of kids who are diagnosed when they are older.

Prof. Ilan Dinstein of Ben Gurion University, the lead author of the peer-reviewed study, said that children were monitored for improvement by two or more points on the eight-point scale that measures autism severity within two years of diagnosis.

“We’ve observed a very significant difference, with children diagnosed earlier tending to be more integrated socially, and with better communication abilities,” he told The Times of Israel. ”And taking notice of this should have a very strong impact on policy.

“It’s a wake-up call for public health decision makers about the importance of early diagnosis. It sends out a strong message that we can no longer sit on the sidelines as people lose valuable time during which children could be receiving treatment because families are waiting for diagnoses.”

In many countries, including Israel, if parents don’t seek a private neurologist or psychologist, they can wait months for an autism diagnosis. Moreover, educating parents how to spot autism isn’t a major priority, and people often miss signs in their children’s development that could lead to timely diagnosis.

Dinstein said that while many people assume it’s common sense that an earlier diagnosis is better, there hasn’t been enough clear data until now to document the importance and drive the point home to health policymakers.

A boy holding colorful puzzle heart in front of his face to raise awareness for World Autism Day. (iStock via Getty Images)

That is because previous autism studies have tended to focus on children who were three or older at diagnosis. The Azrieli National Centre for Autism and Neurodevelopment Research, a Ben Gurion University-led project that Dinstein heads, has access to unusually large data sets of children who were diagnosed both early and late.

It is currently scaling up its work after a massive investment of NIS 40 million ($13 million). Its data tracks children from very young ages, as it runs a database that contains a mass of information — contributed with parental consent — about the challenges and progress of Israeli autistic children.

“We’re showing that early diagnoses and ensuring early treatment a very strong impact on the potential to develop social abilities,” Dinstein said. “We believe this larger improvement is due to the greater brain plasticity and behavioral flexibility that is a fundamental characteristic of early childhood.

An girl holds ribbon to raise awareness of autism. (iStock)

“These results highlight the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder, and motivate further prioritization of universal screening for autism spectrum disorder before two-and-a-half years of age. We think that these dramatic early improvements have long term impact, and we are now exploring this in further follow-up studies with the same children.”

Dinstein said he hopes his research, published in the journal Autism, will have an impact on policy, as health ministries decide where to put funding and whether it’s worth investing in early diagnosis. “This has a very long term impact [on] the kinds of changes children can effect.”

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