Australian Medical Association calls for earlier autism diagnosis

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The President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) has called for concerted action by politicians and professional to improve the country’s early diagnosis of children suspected of having autism.

Dr Michael Gannon said an analysis of Medicare data, published in the Medical Journal of Australia, shows that Australian children are most commonly being diagnosed at around six years of age whereas children living in similar countries are commonly receiving their diagnosis at around three years of age or younger.

Speaking at the launch of the AMA’s Position Statement on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) he said:

As medical practitioners, we understand that timing is critical. The sooner we can identify a problem or concern, the better. This is particularly true of ASD, as the brain’s ability to respond and remodel itself means early intervention can make a huge difference to the outcome for children.

The AMA Statement says that effective and evidence-based therapies should be instituted as soon as possible but that this requires ‘a suitable number of clinicians and other professionals to ensure timely access to diagnostic assessment for children who are suspected of having ASD’.

A 2014 survey conducted by Autism Awareness Australia found that 34 per cent of families waited more than a year for diagnosis, and close to 20 per cent waited more than two years.

The AMA Statement also urges medical practitioners to talk to teachers and families to seek their insights and observations of children suspected of having ASD and says more needs to be done to ensure family doctors (GPs) know how, when, and where to refer a child for diagnosis.

GPs are usually the first health professional that a parent will confide in about their concerns for their child, yet Australia currently has no nationally consistent guidance for GPs about when to refer children on with symptoms of ASD for a more specialised assessment. This may be contributing to vastly different experiences for individual children.

Dr Gannon said.

To address this the AMA recommends:

  • That comprehensive guidelines and/or national standards, be developed to improve referral practices and diagnostic assessments for children suspected of having ASD;
  • That there be ongoing research into the effectiveness of current and potential therapies; and
  • That all health professionals who interact with children are encouraged to develop and maintain their understanding of the early signs and symptoms of ASD.

The CEO of Autism Awareness Australia, Nicole Rogerson, said:

For too long, autism has been put in the ‘disability basket’ without proper recognition of the integral role doctors play in early detection and supporting families.

GPs are often the first point of call for parents who are concerned about their child’s development, yet we are still seeing longer than necessary wait times for referrals and diagnosis.‘What we know without a doubt is that early detection leads to early intervention, giving children the opportunity to have their best outcome.

We have welcomed working with the AMA over the last year, and are delighted to see this important autism policy come to light.

The AMA Statement also calls on the Government to make a strong ongoing commitment that people who are impacted by ASD will have ongoing access to support through Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

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