Most Children with ASD Diagnosed After Age 5, Use Multiple Services and Medications
• Science Update
Fewer than one out of five school-aged children with special health care needs were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by age 2, according to new data from an NIMH-funded study. These diagnoses were made by a variety of health care providers, and most children in the study used multiple health care services (such as speech or language therapy) and multiple medications.
Identifying ASD at an early age allows children to start treatment sooner, which can improve their later development and learning, and may also reduce a child’s need for specialized services or treatments later in life.
To determine the experiences of school-aged children with special health care needs, Lisa Colpe, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Bev Pringle, Ph.D., of the NIMH Division of Services and Intervention Research, collaborated with colleagues who conducted more than 4,000 telephone interviews with parents or guardians of a child between the ages of 6-17 who had a confirmed diagnosis of ASD, intellectual disability, and/or developmental delay.
These survey interviews were a part of the Pathways to Diagnosis and Services Study, sponsored by NIMH using funds available from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). Additional collaborators on this project include the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Maternal and Child Health Bureau at the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).
Results of the Study
Key findings include:
- The median age when school aged children with special health care needs and ASD were first identified as having ASD was 5 years.
- Those identified as having ASD at younger than 5 years were diagnosed most often by generalists (such as pediatricians, family physicians, and nurse practitioners) and psychologists. Those identified later than 5 years were diagnosed primarily by psychologists and psychiatrists.
- Nine out of ten school-aged children with special health care needs and ASD used at least one health care service, such as behavioral intervention or modification services, sensory integration therapy, cognitive based therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, social skills training, or speech or language therapy.
- Social skills training and speech or language therapy were the most commonly used service, each used by almost 60 percent, or three out of five, of these children.
- More than half of school-aged children with special health care needs and ASD used at least one psychotropic medication. “Psychotropic medication” refers to any medication used to treat a mental disorder.
- Almost 33 percent of these children used stimulant medications
- 25 percent used anti-anxiety or mood-stabilizing medications
- 20 percent used antidepressants.
The new data detail the experiences of young children with ASD, describing when they are first identified as having ASD, who is making those identifications, and the services and medications the children use to meet their developmental needs.
NIMH encourages researchers to access and analyze the new dataset to produce more studies on the early life experiences and the diagnostic, service, and treatment issues relevant to children with ASD and special health care needs. The Pathways to Diagnosis and Services Study dataset can be accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/slaits/spds.htm.
Pringle BA, Colpe LJ, Blumberg SJ, Avila RM, Kogan MD. Diagnostic History and Treatment of School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Special Health Care Needs. NCHS data brief, no 97. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2012.