Early action can help with autism

Linda R. atson

Autism Researcher, Linda R. Watson

By Linda R. Watson

One in 68 children show symptoms of autism spectrum disorder by the time they reach 8 years of age, according to statistics released last week by Centers for Disease Control. The meaning of these numbers is highlighted for me as I hear more and more stories from friends and acquaintances whose families include a member with ASD.

As an autism researcher, I am asked many questions about autism for which we continue to lack definitive answers, including, “Why is autism increasing so much?” But I welcome these hard questions, because they open conversations about some of the important progress we have made in understanding this neurodevelopmental disorder.

One important advance is much more knowledge of the early risk markers for ASD. This has led to improvements in our ability to identify toddlers with ASD. Through early identification, we increase the chances that these toddlers and their families will have access to early intervention programs.

Although good intervention programs at all ages can improve functioning for individuals with ASD, the most dramatic improvements have been seen among toddlers and preschoolers who participate in intensive intervention programs. Improvements include better language and cognitive skills and fewer problem behaviors, which are associated in turn with better school performance and a greater likelihood of independent living as adults. For these reasons, early identification of children with ASD is a priority for the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other organizations.

Through the Program in Early Autism Research, Leadership and Service at UNC-Chapel Hill, my colleagues and I are examining the risk markers for ASD in infants and young toddlers.

We previously developed a research version of a questionnaire for parents of 12-month-olds that identifies about half of the children who will be diagnosed with ASD as preschoolers. Many parents of children eventually diagnosed with ASD express concerns about their child’s development by the child’s first birthday, but the risk markers at this age are often subtle. Thus, both parents and physicians are hard-pressed to know how seriously to take the concerns in the absence of a good screening tool.

Our questionnaire, the First Year Inventory, provides information on whether a 12-month-old is at high risk for ASD or other developmental problems sharing some of the same early risk markers.

This questionnaire also has made it possible for our team to begin evaluating interventions with 1-year-olds and their parents prior to the time that autism symptoms have fully emerged. Our hope is that starting appropriate interventions at such a young age will be especially effective because the brains of infants and young toddlers are growing rapidly and are very “plastic,” meaning that their future brain growth can be altered by their early experiences.

This month, 40,000 families in North Carolina will be asked to assist in the very early identification of children at risk for autism and other developmental problems. These are families who have infants between the ages of 9 and 16 months, as identified through public birth records in our state.

Parents will receive a postcard early this month inviting them to participate in the North Carolina Developmental Survey online or by mail. Our PEARLS team is doing this survey to improve our parent questionnaire and adapt it for a broader age range of infants. Through these changes, we aim to make the questionnaire useful for pediatricians and other community professionals who see infants and young toddlers and talk with parents about their child’s development. The more responses we receive to the North Carolina Child Development Survey, the more confident we can be about what behaviors are typical for infants in this age range, and what behaviors best identify infants likely to have later developmental problems, including ASD.

April is Autism Awareness Month. Without question, the awareness of autism is at an all time high. As a society, we face a major public health challenge of how we will respond to the increasing prevalence of ASD. Early detection and early intervention are important components of a comprehensive approach.

North Carolina is at the forefront in our country in lowering the age at which ASD is diagnosed, but the average age of diagnosis in our state is still a relatively old 46 months. Thus, many children are being diagnosed too late to participate in early intervention. We can do better. The North Carolina Child Development Survey provides an opportunity for North Carolina parents to help meet this challenge.

Linda R. Watson is a clinical associate professor of speech-language pathology in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences, Department of Allied Health Sciences at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Originally appeared in The News & Observer.


Buckley Public Service Scholars Class of 2013

Two hundred and fifty-eight members of the class of 2013 Buckley Public Service Scholars were honored Friday, May 10, at a ceremony in Memorial Hall. Learn more about each scholar and their achievements.


Ninth class of UNC Buckley Public Service Scholars honored at graduation event

Read the Buckley Public Service Scholars Graduate Bulletin:

BPSS Grad Bulletin - 2013 Cover Image

View pictures from the 2013 Buckley Public Service Scholars graduation:

BPSS participant and UNC student body vice president Rachel Myrick wins Rhodes Scholarship

Rachel Myrick

Rachel Myrick

(Daily Tar Heel)

Senior Rachel Myrick is happily rescinding all of her other graduate school applications after receiving news Saturday that she will be a Rhodes Scholar.

Myrick, who is a Morehead-Cain Scholar, Carolina Research Scholar and Carolina Public Service Scholar, is the 48th Rhodes Scholar from UNC.

The 32 American Rhodes Scholars of 2013 were selected from a pool of 838 candidates nominated by their colleges and universities.

“I knew it was such a long shot,” said Myrick, who is also the student body vice president.

“I got in the middle of so many graduate school applications because it was totally inconceivable that this was going to happen, but now that I’m canceling all of those applications, it’s a great feeling.”

Myrick said the notification process was delayed because of Hurricane Sandy.

The applications were due to the University the first week of school, and about a week and a half ago, Myrick received the invitation to attend the final round of interviews in Washington, D.C., this past weekend.

The two scholars for each of the 16 districts in the United States were announced in front of candidates and interviewers on Saturday.

“When I heard my name, I just froze. I was in total disbelief. We had already been waiting for three hours altogether, and I was preparing myself for thanking interviewers and congratulating candidates,” Myrick said.

Student Body President Will Leimenstoll said he could not think of a more deserving person to receive the Rhodes Scholarship than Myrick.

“She is completely qualified academically and socially, and she’s a good person at heart,” he said. “I’m glad to see it going to people who have worked hard for it and will do something positive with it.”

In a news release Sunday, Chancellor Holden Thorp congratulated Myrick.

“The Rhodes is a well-deserved honor for this exceptionally bright student, and it will provide even more opportunities for Rachel to make a difference in the world. 

Myrick said she became interested in applying for the scholarship while studying abroad in London her sophomore year.

She will obtain her M.Phil. in International Relations at the University of Oxford, which she hopes will lead to a Ph.D.

Patrick Snyder, a friend of Myrick’s since their freshman year of high school, said she tries to make a positive impact on everyone she meets.

“Coming to Carolina, I knew she was going to set herself up for greatness with her drive and motivation to be involved on campus and in the community,” Snyder said.

Myrick said she is grateful to her high school teachers who taught her to love learning — and the faculty and administrators at UNC who encouraged her to look into the opportunity.

“I think I’ve just had the help and support and encouragement of so many people along this road,” she said.

“It was a stressful process but totally worth it,” she said.

“I still don’t really think it’s sunk in.”