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COLUMN: My child might have autism. What do I do?

March 27th, 2018

Story Contact: Sheena Rice, 573-882-8353,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By: Kristen Sohl, associate professor of clinical child health and director of ECHO Autism University of Missouri Health Care

If you think your child could have autism, you might be unsure about what to do next. You’ve noticed the warning signs: repetitive behavior like hand-flapping and rocking back and forth, limited eye contact and speech, even failure to respond to their own name. You want to get your child the diagnosis and care they need, but there’s a problem: the nearest autism care center is hundreds of miles away, and if you manage to make the trip, you might face a wait list that is months or sometimes even years long.

You are not alone, and there is help.

At the University of Missouri’s Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders, we know that getting your child the care they need can be a daunting task, especially for those who live in small towns. That’s why we started ECHO Autism, a program that trains care providers to diagnose and care for people with autism in order to give families broader access to professional autism care in their communities. Since its inception in March 2015, the program has grown to include 26 (and counting) primary care providers across Missouri. Now, instead of being forced to make a marathon drive to Columbia, St. Louis or Kansas City, families can call Mizzou’s Thompson Center to get in touch with a trained autism care provider near them.

Increased access to care means earlier diagnoses, and the positive benefit of this cannot be overstated. Research has shown that earlier intervention not only improves a child’s social skills at a young age, but continues to benefit the child throughout life. From kindergarten to adulthood, social communication and integration have a far better outlook when autism is caught at an early age.

By connecting primary care providers with medical centers via videoconference, ECHO Autism is working to make earlier diagnoses and shorter wait times a reality. In order to do so, the program is now performing diagnostic training in addition to care management, allowing access to more complete care for people with autism.

With early intervention being such an important factor, it is unacceptable for Missouri families to be unable to access convenient autism care. ECHO Autism is ensuring parents are not stranded from the care they need and deserve. In turn, wait times at care centers like the Thompson Center should decrease as the array of accessible care options increases. For families, this means that if your child is showing signs of autism, you now have options. A phone call to the Thompson Center can put you in touch with a local care provider who has been trained to provide quality autism care. Alternatively, you can visit your child’s primary care provider, who can recommend a provider that fits your child’s needs. And as always, the Thompson Center provides excellent comprehensive care if you can make the visit.

Of course, bringing best practice care to communities with ECHO Autism is not the only way Mizzou is working to help people with autism. Outside the Thompson Center’s 13 dedicated researchers, we have at least that number also working with autism or the center in various ways. The Speech and Language Clinic at the center provides therapy sessions as well as treatment and evaluation services, and the center even provides training for businesses to help them become autism-friendly. In addition, MU offers two semesters of non-credit employment skills development at the university to 18-to-25-year-olds with autism. The program, called STRIVE, is available for a fraction of the typical cost of tuition, and it seeks to help young people with autism prepare to enter the workforce.

Remember, you’re not alone. According to the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring program, about 1 in 87 eight year-old children in Missouri had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in 2012, with boys five times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. But numbers aside, your child is more than a statistic. Act early. If you think your child might have autism, give the Thompson Center a call at 573-884-6052.