Detecting autism accurate for under-twos

Child health nurses are being trained to detect autism in pre-schoolers, using what autism researcher Larah van der Meer says is the most accurate surveillance screening tool in the world.

Australian specialist in early detection Dr Josephine Barbaro of La Trobe University was brought to New Zealand in June by Autism New Zealand and Plunket in a joint effort with Victoria University to demonstrate the screening tool she developed, known as the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS).

Sixty Plunket nurses and Well Child/Tamariki Ora health professionals in the Wellington region were trained to identify three key things: social attention, interaction and communication. The idea is to monitor children for autism at their routine, community-based health-checks between 12 and 24 months of age.

Larah, who is Research and Advocacy Advisor for Autism New Zealand, says autism can now be reliably diagnosed by two years of age, and early detection of autism is critical as it provides access to early intervention, improving a child’s development and quality of life, and decreasing family stress.

She says the detection programme is being used across Australia, the Asia-Pacific, Europe, and most recently New Zealand. Victoria University Wellington funded the Wellington training and research evaluation. Autism New Zealand is looking for funding to provide further training across the country.

Josephine Barbaro is a Senior Research Fellow at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre at La Trobe University, and co-founder of Australia's first Early Assessment Clinic for autism.

The IHC Foundation has contributed $113,100 towards the development of the Autism Resource Centre in Petone (pictured). The Centre will be a place to access clinical diagnostic services and associated therapies, and provide support services and education programmes.