Each year more than 200,000 children are diagnosed with autism. Lee County is one of the few areas where children can get a free screening.
Sherri Campbell, a nurse practitioner with Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, says children can be screened for autism between 18 months and five years old. “We’re trying to identify children with autism as early as possible and that’s why we have this screening program.”
The sooner a child can be diagnosed, the sooner the child can start therapy. Children with autism typically need behavioral therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy to help them develop necessary social skills. “At about 14 months a child should be pointing, pointing to pictures in a book or things of interest. A lack of pointing is one of the hallmark signs of a child that might have autism. Also, also lack of eye contact. They’re supposed to have 18 to 20 words at 18 months,” said Campbell.
But just because a child fails the screening, it doesn’t mean they have autism. “It’s a screen it’s not a test. So many children can fail the screen that don’t have autism. They can have speech delay, cognitive delay, mental retardation, or hearing problem, or vision problem. A lot of things can mimic autism,” said Campbell.
During the screening, experts will address family history and conduct a series of behavioral tests with the child. “We do a general developmental screen that looks at all the areas of development. It takes us about 20 or 30 minutes. We get to interface with the child, seeing if they’re pointing to pictures and books, seeing if they’re doing any pretend play, seeing what the eye contact is like,” said Campbell.
The screening can help experts find or eliminate other health problems as well as autism. “We’re really looking for any child with disabilities that we can help early on,” said Campbell.
The America Academy of Pediatrics wants all children screened at 18 months and 24 months in hopes of giving the child the best opportunity at life.
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