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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Summer 2009

Early Intervention Key to Treatment

It is not entirely clear why the diagnosis of autism and autism-spectrum disorders is on the rise, although part of the increase is attributed to a greater awareness among parents and healthcare providers, as well as more widespread use of assessment tools.

Regardless, early identification of the disorder is critical, says Tanya Paparella, Ph.D., codirector of UCLA’s Early Childhood Partial Hospitalization Program (ECPHP) at Stewart and Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. “It is well established through research that the earlier you intervene, the better the results,” she says. “We also know that the interventions should be intensive, structured, consistent, integrated and individualized, with parents as full partners.”

Autism represents a wide spectrum of diagnoses. “It’s very hard to summarize autism because there are so many different presentations,” says Stephanny Freeman, Ph.D., co-director of the ECPHP.

While no two cases of autism spectrum are the same, the one common thread is a social communication disorder, Drs. Paparella and Freeman explain. Often, early signs can be seen in children beginning at about 12 months, when the child seems not to be responding to language — this can at first be misinterpreted as a hearing problem. Other signs include lack of hand gestures, sharing of experiences and social connections — parents may have trouble engaging their children in a game of peek-a-boo or pat-a-cake, for example.

At that point, Drs. Paparella and Freeman note, a pediatrician can administer a simple screening test, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (MCHAT), to determine whether a referral is needed.

For more information about ECPHP, go to:


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