AUTISM, the developmental disorder that can have such a devastating social, emotional and financial impact on families, now affects as many as one out of every 166 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But recent advances have shown that early diagnosis and treatment can yield positive results, and Maryland is in a position to put research into practice and perhaps lead the nation in making new inroads against it.
Researchers have determined that autism is often characterized by unusual brain development, and it is believed that genetics and the environment are contributing factors, although to what extent is still unclear. It is frequently manifested by delayed communication, stunted social development and odd patterns of movement, among other signs.
While autism is often not diagnosed until a child is about 3 years old, some abnormalities are evident, or at least suspected, by 18 months. Early screening gives experts and parents extra time to work with children while their brains are still developing rapidly. For instance, proper training can help a child who shows signs of delayed social development compensate for those skills through another region of the brain.
Legislation pending in the General Assembly would establish a three-year pilot program that would require the state Department of Education and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to assess autism screening practices used in pediatric health care settings. It would also set up model screening practices in at least two jurisdictions in the state as part of "well baby" visits for 1- to 3-year-olds. And it would provide special training for about 30 pediatricians around the state so that they could recognize early signs of autism in 1- to 3-year-olds. These professionals would also make parents of autistic children aware of helpful services, including those available through the state's Infants and Toddlers Program.
While the basic elements of the pilot program have passed muster with the House and the Senate, the estimated $250,000 initial cost has not been sealed. As legislators come together to iron out budget differences, they should remember that early detection of autism could reduce costs for special education and other services in later years. Making this modest investment is the very least the state can do to help the small victims of this devastating condition - and their families, too.