ScreeningCan 385 x298Earlier in my career, I worked as an applied behavior analyst for children with autism. Most of the families I assisted had waited to ask for help for their children for a variety of reasons. Cultural issues, stigma or fear, confusion, and lack of awareness were just a few.

But the waiting didn’t end there. Once receiving a formal diagnosis, children then had to wait to be assigned to a provider, and again for services to begin. Sometimes this took months and other times years. By the time everything fell into place, many children aged out of “Early Start,” California’s early intervention program for infants and toddlers.

Delays in diagnosis and treatment affect children throughout their lives. The brain has the greatest capacity for change during a child’s first three years, the time when early intervention services are most effective. Unfortunately, most developmental delays, such as autism, are not diagnosed until much later in a child’s life. Early screening can change that.

But earlier this month, a national task force of experts missed an opportunity to join the American Academy of Pediatrics and call for all young children to receive screening for autism. Currently, about half of all pediatricians screen for autism at 18 and 24 month check-ups, using a simple 20-question checklist for parents. Citing insufficient research on the benefit of early screening for autism, the task force recommended screening only for children who have symptoms of autism or other developmental delays.

With 1 in 68 children receiving a diagnosis on the autism spectrum today, it only makes sense to provide universal early screening to all children.

Here’s why: not all families recognize if their child might have delayed development, and not all parents are aware of symptoms. While early screening doesn’t provide a diagnosis, it can raise red flags for children not meeting developmental milestones related to language, social interaction skills, problem solving, and physical movement.  And like most families experience, well-child visits are typically brief. A five to ten minute visit may not allow enough time for doctors to assess how children are developing unless parents ask specific questions or raise concerns. Screening provides families with the tools, and common language, to do this.

That’s why screening is essential for all children, and why First 5 Contra Costa is working to expand screening for all children in our county. Missed opportunities to begin interventions early, when they are most successful and cost-effective, are unacceptable.

Make your voice heard. Public comment is being accepted on the task force’s screening recommendations through August 31.

Shaun-Adrian Choflá is First 5 Contra Costa’s new Help Me Grow Program Coordinator.