The likelihood of a school-aged American child receiving a diagnosis of autism, Asperger syndrome or a related developmental disorder is on the rise.
In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated one in 110 children was diagnosed with autism. That number has risen to one in 50, according to an analysis of a phone survey of parents the center released in March.
Locally, the Fort Hood Exceptional Family Member Program is tracking 404 active-duty family members with autism spectrum disorders, which are estimated to affect nearly 8,500 children of active-duty service members throughout the Army, said Maj. Ryan Moore, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center chief of pediatrics.
“The spike is being attributed to various causes, including increased awareness of autism spectrum disorders among clinicians and parents and more diagnoses of milder autism disorders,” Moore said.
According to the center, autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by atypical development in socialization, communication and behavior.
“The symptoms of (autism) typically are present before age 3 years and often are accompanied by abnormalities in cognitive functioning, learning, attention and sensory processing,” the center’s website said.
Symptoms of autism can be minimal or severe, and they can vary dramatically from one child to another.
Some symptoms may appear to indicate other disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder or oppositional defiant disorder, which can make an accurate diagnosis difficult.
The center’s recent study also points out a potential concern that many children are not being diagnosed before age 7. Autism can be reliably diagnosed by age 3 and potential interventions exist that can have a significant impact on their growth and development.
At Darnall, providers who see pediatric patients have adopted a standardized approach to well-child visits, Moore said.
“Adopting the guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics, clinics across the installation have instituted routine screening for autism spectrum disorders at 18-month and 24-month well-child visit,” he said. “The screening occurs at these visits because this is the age range where they symptoms of autism emerge.”
Moore said if the results of screening indicate a concern for autism, the primary care provider will typically refer the family to a specialist to provide a more detailed evaluation and potentially definitive diagnosis.
Early and effective intervention has changed the landscape of treatment for autism. A wide range of evidence-based treatment options exist to help parents and their affected children improve their overall outcomes.
Assistance through Tricare exists for children diagnosed with autism.
Military families should start with enrollment in the Exceptional Family Member Program, followed by registration for the Extended Care Health Option, which provides additional financial assistance for those families seeking treatments not covered under basic Tricare services.
While understanding has improved as experience with autism grows, confusion still exists over how to navigate treatment options.
“Facing an autism diagnosis can be scary, but (Darnall) doctors and support services are here to support and guide families through the process,” Moore said.
If you think your child may have autism or is showing signs of developmental delays, talk to your primary care provider or contact Tricare appointment services at (254) 288-8888 and request a check-up.
Active-duty family members who have severe physical or moderate-to-severe mental disabilities can receive specialized services through the Tricare extended care option. Active-duty beneficiaries within the Southern Regional Medical Command must enroll in the program through the application process identified at: www.humana-military.com/library/pdf/echo-application.pdf.
Retiree beneficiaries are not eligible for enrollment into the Tricare extended program; a U.S. District Court order mandated that Tricare will provide applied behavioral analysis therapy as a medical benefit for retiree family members. Retiree beneficiaries with autism or any other severe physical or moderate-to-severe mental disabilities can receive the therapy through a referral from their Tricare primary care manager.
Tricare does not cover expenses for respite care, equipment or case managers for retiree beneficiaries.
Beneficiaries can obtain additional information regarding services for children with autism at www.Humana-Military.com or by calling (866) 323-7155. A resource for military families that have children with autism can find more information at www.operationautismonline.org.