Psychologist Receives Grants to Fight Autism
(Released: August 12, 2002)
By Allison Thompson, Office of University Communications
STORRS, Conn. -- If University of Connecticut psychology
Professor Deborah Fein had her way, every child in the state of
Connecticut would be screened for autism at a young age, since
early detection and intervention are more likely to result in
successful treatment of the disorder. Thanks to two federal grants,
Fein is one step closer to her goal.
Last month, Fein received a five-year grant of nearly $500,000
per year from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund
autism early detection work. Last fall, Fein and her colleagues
received a separate grant of $200,000 per year for four years from
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Maternal and
Child Health Bureau (MCH) to fund other aspects of the same
Autism is a developmental disability that typically appears
during the first three years of life and is disruptive to social
relationships, communication and imaginative play. It is a very
common developmental disability, affecting at least 1 in 500
children. Children who receive early intervention are more likely
to develop communication skills and have improved long-term
"The earlier a child is diagnosed with autism or another
pervasive development disorder, the sooner he or she can receive
treatment," Fein says. "Time and again, research has
shown that early treatment leads to a better outcome. In my
clinical practice, I've seen some amazing success stories of
children who become essentially typical in their development and
attend regular school with no difficulties. Virtually all of them
have received aggressive early intervention."
The grants allow Fein and her fellow researchers at Stanford
University, the University of Washington and the Yale Child Study
Center to screen thousands of children through pediatricians'
offices and early intervention centers, and compare three different
screening devices. One device, the Modified Checklist for Autism in
Toddlers (M-CHAT), was created by Diana Robins, a former graduate
student of Fein's who is now at Yale, in collaboration with
Fein and others using the British test CHAT as a model. Fein and
the Yale researchers are comparing CHAT, M-CHAT and a screening
device that was developed at Yale.
"We're trying to find the best screening device that
doesn't miss any children who might have autism, but also
doesn't over diagnose," Fein says.
In order to compare the three checklists, parents of children
aged 18 to 24 months are asked to spend five to 10 minutes
completing the screening devices when they take their children to
the doctor. The doctors send the completed questionnaires to Fein
to be scored. If the results indicate that a child could have
autism, the researchers contact the physician and the parent. The
parent is told which questions the child failed and is invited to
bring the child in for a free evaluation. During that appointment,
the child is given more substantial tests. If they indicate that
the child has autism or another developmental disorder, the parents
receive recommendations regarding the type and intensity of
treatment and are offered help finding services.
A secondary goal of the project is to evaluate treatments for
autism. Children who were diagnosed with autism and received
treatment at an early age will be examined again at age 4 to
determine what type of intervention results in the most successful
treatment. The site where the intervention services were delivered
and the number of hours per week that the children were seen will
also be evaluated. The researchers will also give the autism
screening devices to the younger siblings of children who have
already been diagnosed with the disorder, to determine whether the
screening devices will work for the younger siblings as well.
Fein emphasizes that she and her fellow researchers, who already
have the endorsement of the Connecticut chapter of the American
Academy of Pediatrics, need the assistance of more pediatricians to
make the study a success.
"By giving the screening devices to parents, pediatricians
allow parents to get a diagnosis without waiting to get into autism
specialty clinics, which often have lengthy waiting lists,"
Fein says. "Though a diagnosis of autism can be upsetting,
getting the diagnosis increases the amount of help available from
the state and improves the child's prognosis. In other cases,
parents are concerned about autism, but it turns out the child has
milder delays and is not diagnosed as autistic. In either case,
getting the most complete information can only help the
Pediatricians interested in giving the screening devices to
their patients should contact Gail Marshia, the project
coordinator, at (860) 486-2538.
August 2002 Releases
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