Early Autism Testing: Boon or Bane?

New guidelines urge earlier screening for autism -- and earlier intervention.

ByABC News
February 9, 2009, 9:12 PM

Oct. 29, 2007— -- When Nancy Wiseman noticed her 24-month-old baby girl seemed to have trouble communicating and responding to her name, she took her to her pediatrician's office for an explanation.

But she was surprised that her concerns went unnoticed. Not until Sarah was diagnosed with autism at 29 months did she get treatment.

That was nearly a decade ago. Today, Sarah is functioning like a normal 11-year-old, and Wiseman believes this is thanks to early diagnosis.

"Today, Sarah is more socially related than most typically developed children," says Wiseman, founder and president of the autism organization First Signs, and author of the book Could It Be Autism? The Parent's Guide to the First Signs and Next Steps. "She is even performing at or above her grade level."

Publicity surrounding experiences like Wiseman's may be the reason why today, more than ever, parents want to know sooner than later if their child is affected with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released two new reports that may help pediatricians recognize autism spectrum disorders earlier and guide families to effective interventions.

These are the "most comprehensive reports that target pediatricians," says lead author Dr. Chris Johnson, clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio.

But while many autism experts applaud the new screening recommendations, some remain concerned that the new guidelines could spark fears in parents -- particularly if normal children are misdiagnosed.

"It might also mislabel and create undue anxiety, given the wide range of normal for development in this age group," says Dr. Charles Shubin, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

The last time such a report was compiled was in 2001. The new reports, Johnson says, represent a complete overhaul of this previous information, and they also include recommendations that all children be screened for this category of conditions at one-and-a-half and two years of age.