Utah autism rate holds steady, is no longer nation's highest

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 11:05 a.m. MDT

"We want to get as close to 2 years old as possible," Bilder said. "The younger we identify these children, the sooner we can get them into intervention, the more response they're going to get from the intervention, and the better prepared they're going to be for school and all sorts of areas of functioning."

According to the study, less than half of Utah children with autism spectrum disorder were identified by health providers and educators by age 4, although a diagnosis can be made in children as young as 2.

Parents are encouraged to act early and follow their intuition, seeking help from qualified physicians and educators.

"So many alarms set off with my daughter," Walker said.

"She was not making eye contact, not hugging or showing those emotions. She was lining up her toys instead of playing with them. She was not socializing or playing with other kids," Walker said, adding that she only knew the symptoms after having done much research on her own.

Levels of intellectual ability vary greatly among children with autism, ranging from severe intellectual challenges to average or above average intellectual ability. The study found that almost half of children identified with autism spectrum disorder have average or above average intellectual ability (an IQ above 85), compared to a third of children a decade ago.

"Community leaders, health professionals, educators and child care providers should use these data to ensure children with autism spectrum disorders are identified as early as possible and connected to the services they need," said Coleen Boyle, director of the CDC's National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, which oversees publication of the report.

"More needs to be done to identify children with autism sooner," she said. "Early identification is the most powerful tool we have right now to make a difference in the lives of children with autism."

Walker said early diagnoses for her children have helped them progress in unimaginable ways — teaching Elena American Sign Language to communicate in the beginning, and giving Matthew help to learn speaking and crawling, because he suffered some physical setbacks at a very young age.

Elena was also admitted early to a special education preschool, in hopes that it would help. Walker said it has helped "leaps and bounds."

"You can barely tell (Matthew) has an autism spectrum disorder now. His progress has been tremendous," she said, adding that helping both children be successful has been "a long, hard haul."

Walker and her husband decided to focus on the needs of their two kids and not pursue the larger family they had once wanted, but she's grateful. "I really feel like we're on the other side now, that we've gotten through the worst of it."

The biggest hurdle, Walker said, is finding the one thing that helps, which is different for every child.

"Looking back at it now, it was all worth it," she said. "All children are worth it. They are our children and they need us."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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