Parents urge early screening, intervention for changing course of autism

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A local family says early detection can make all the difference in the treatment of autism. (WPVI)

Universal screening for autism seems to be paying off.

A recent study shows kids are getting diagnosed about a year earlier, and that means treatment can start earlier.

And a local family says early intervention is so important.

10-year-old Braden Wright goes full-tilt - whether it's a game of hoops with his family, or practicing his drums.

It's quite the reversal.

"From the beginning, there were issues - from his eye contact, not looking at us, smiling, rolling over," recalls Nicole.

By the time he was a toddler, Shawn and Nicole Wright knew Braden's behavior wasn't typical.

"He was the kid who sits in the corner, hides under the table, banging blocks, not interacting with any of the other kids," she says.

Their pediatricians assured them it would change.

Shawn says they were often told, "He's a boy. He's stubborn. He'll get there when he gets there."

Finally, on a trip to the emergency room for an unrelated problem, one doctor took notice, urging that Braden be tested for autism.

Dr. Amanda Bennett of Children's Hospital says guidelines now recommend EVERY child be screened for autism at 18, 24, and 30 months.

The screening tool is called the M-CHAT - Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers.

"We're looking for children who have social and communication delays," says Dr. Bennett, adding, "It is meant to catch anyone who COULD be at risk."

And Dr. Bennett says about 95% of the children flagged by the M-CHAT questionnaire and a follow-up interview are diagnosed with developmental delays.

Many used to slip through, and not be caught till much later.

"The earlier you can intervene in a developmental delay, the better," she emphasizes.

Once we got the diagnosis, it opened up so many doors," says Nicole, as Shawn nods in agreement.

"Early intervention came right in. They were there within a couple weeks," says Nicole.

A host of therapies - physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech, and more - ignited Braden's development and hunger for learning.

He's now in a mainstream classroom half the day, and in an autism support class the other half.

The boy who couldn't pick up a pencil now has good fine motor skills.

He now plays basketball and other sports with Special Olympics.

And he loves music, playing both drums and the xylophone.

"He wouldn't be the child he is today, if we didn't get all those services early," says Nicole.

Dr. Bennett says it may take time to get an exam and diagnosis, but early intervention can often start sooner.

For the free, online M-CHAT, click here.

Children's Hospital has many online resources, including the Center for Autism Research, the Integrated Care Program, and the Autism Road Map, a guide to help parents from diagnosis into early adulthood.

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