Research shows that symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, can appear as early as the first two years of a child’s life. Extensive neurological research has also demonstrated the importance of early childhood development. During the postnatal period, when a child starts to interact with the world around them, they start to form bonds with their environment and people close to them. These bonds, as well as their first learning experiences, deeply affect their future physical, cognitive, emotional and social development. There is no question that these early years are incredibly important for any child, and perhaps doubly so for a child living with autism. Unfortunately, many families face barriers to early diagnosis and potential treatment for a myriad of reasons. The ability to bypass these barriers and obtain an early diagnosis can provide a greater likelihood of an improved developmental trajectory in individuals living with autism. We’ll explore both the aforementioned barriers families face, as well as several differences early diagnosis can make.
The Barriers to Early Diagnosis Treatment
Families living in rural areas experience one of the biggest barriers to early diagnosis due to lack of access to proper diagnostic tools. Jeremy Hsu, a science and technology journalist for Spectrum News, estimated that for more than 1 million autistic children in the United States, there only about 8,300 child psychiatrists, 1,500 child neurologists and 1,000 developmental-behavioral pediatricians. Families without access to these clinicians are often cut off from important information about their early development and treatment options. Furthermore, a joint article by Eliza Gordon-Lipkin, MD, Jessica Foster, MD, MDH, and Georgina Peacock, MD, MDH for Pediatric Clinics of North America, states that a backlog of patients can cause wait times for families that can range anywhere between 3 months to 2 years. The importance of early childhood development can make any lag in care potentially harmful for families.
The Difference Early Identification Can Make
A child can miss out on several milestones, including a regular sleep schedule and consistently responding to questions, in as little time as a year from age one to two. Because autism can potentially affect a person’s interactions socially, at school, at work, or in other areas of life, some clinicians are of the opinion that early treatment options are more cost and time efficient than a “wait and see” approach. According to a 2013 article by Robert L. Koegel, Kristin Ashbaugh, and Jessica Bradshaw for the International Journal of Speech and Language Pathology, researchers also see the potential for secondary symptoms, such as aggression or self-harm, to arise in cases where primary symptoms are not addressed early on. Telehealth is now a widely recognized option for early diagnosis. Behavior Imaging tools like Behavior Connect and NODA can provide remote diagnostic options for clinicians and families to ensure these milestones aren’t missed.
The Fiscal Difference
Beyond the behavioral differences of early identification, there is also evidence to support a fiscal difference. Early diagnosis has the potential to save money for both those in need of care and medical providers. Some people individuals with autism desire and need long term support while others need very little at all. Every process is unique. People who require support well into adulthood are often faced with mounting prohibitive costs later in life. In a cost-benefit model from 1998, researchers attempted to predict cost savings by introducing early treatment to children living with autism for 3 years from the time they were 2 years old to school entry. Cost savings were estimated in the range of $187,000–$203,000 for children aged 3–22 years and between $656,000–$1,082,000 for those aged 3–55 years. Whether a family’s needs are short or long term, prohibitive costs shouldn’t stand in the way of support and treatment.
The Telehealth Solution for Early Diagnosis
Telehealth tools like NODA and Behavior Connect are an incredibly useful alternative to traditional diagnostic tools. By capturing their child’s behavior using smart phone technology and sending data directly to a clinician, families can bypass exorbitant wait times. Multiple visits to a brick and mortar medical facility can also lead to mounting costs that can ultimately prohibit families from receiving a final diagnosis. We’re hopeful that telehealth can provide a step in the right direction by providing a cost effective option for early diagnosis by reducing these high cost visits. It’s our mission to ensure healthy early development for children living with autism by providing diagnostic options through telehealth.