NJ experts: COVID-19 is delaying early autism diagnosis, treatment
Young children with autism spectrum disorder, and their families who don't know it yet, are another victim of the coronavirus pandemic, according to experts.
Professionals in New Jersey say the COVID-19 crisis, which has been impacting the state since March 2020, is likely delaying early diagnosis of the developmental disorder among countless youth.
"Delaying care, delaying an assessment, delaying a diagnosis even 11 months, that can be a very long time, especially when you're talking about a kid that might only be 26 months old," Matthew Hess, CEO of Cherry Hill-based First Children Services, told New Jersey 101.5.
One obvious barrier, Hess said, is that many children who've aged into the public school system, and would otherwise be face to face with education professionals who can spot potential signs of autism, continue to learn remotely or in a hybrid fashion.
"A lot of school districts are not able to assess those children as they reach age 3," Hess said.
At the same time, parents, similar to general consumers, are delaying medical care or would-be routine appointments, due to COVID-19 concerns, he said. Pediatrician visits, Hess said, serve as another way to pick up on a potential case of ASD, should it go unnoticed at home or elsewhere.
"There are certain developmental milestones that kids should be hitting," Hess added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey's rate of autism among children is the highest in the nation at 1 in 32, compared to a nationwide average of 1 in 54. This doesn't necessarily mean the prevalence of autism is greater in New Jersey than in any other state — the Garden State has received plenty of credit over the years for its work to identify autism prevalence.
Despite the rich system of supports for affected kids and their families in New Jersey, advocates note there is still a challenge related to access, specifically getting in front of qualified professionals for evaluation and diagnosis.
Suzanne Buchanan, executive director of Autism New Jersey, said that during this pandemic, "many parents are distraught" about the limited availability of in-person evaluations. Some parents have been waiting months for an appointment "at the very time swift action is needed."
"Early diagnosis of autism is critical because it opens the door to medically necessary treatment and special education services," Buchanan said. "Also, research demonstrates that the earlier and more intensively behavioral intervention is provided, the better the child’s prognosis. Fortunately, some diagnosticians are conducting evaluations via telehealth."