Study finds children with autism or ADHD visit doctor more before age 1. Could this lead to earlier identification?

Baystateparent Magazine
Even before being diagnosed, these babies' health care utilization patterns are distinctive, suggesting a potential new way to identify the conditions early, researchers say.

According to a new study, children with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) visited doctors and hospitals more often during their first year of life than non-affected children. Even before being diagnosed, these babies' health care utilization patterns are distinctive, suggesting a potential new way to identify the conditions early, researchers say. 

The findings from Duke Health researchers, which were published this fall in the journal Scientific Reports, are evidence that health care patterns gleaned from electronic medical records in a baby’s first year of life might serve as a roadmap to provide timely diagnoses and treatments that could improve outcomes and reduce health care costs.

"This study provides evidence that children who develop autism and ADHD are on a different path from the beginning," said Dr. Matthew Engelhard, a senior research associate at Duke and the study’s lead author. "We have known that children with these diagnoses have more interactions with the health care system after they've been diagnosed, but this indicates that distinctive patterns of utilization begin early in these children's lives. This could provide an opportunity to intervene sooner."

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects approximately 1.5 percent of American children and ADHD about 11 percent. ADHD symptoms are also present in up to 60 percent of children with ASD. 

Both diagnoses are associated with higher utilization of health care services, and recognizing this pattern earlier, could mean earlier interventions.

"We know that children with ASD and ADHD often receive their diagnosis much later, missing out on the proven benefits that early interventions can bring," said Dr. Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. 

Early interventions for autism, which occur at or before preschool age, as early as 2 or 3 years of age, are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills. In this period, a young child's brain is still forming, meaning it is more "plastic" or changeable than at older ages. Because of this plasticity, treatments have a better chance of being effective in the longer term.

"Owing to the brain's inherent malleability -- its neuroplasticity -- early detection and intervention are critical to improving outcomes in ASD, especially in terms of language and social skills,” said Dawson. 

In the study, researchers used ten years of data collected from the electronic health records of nearly 30,000 patients, primarily at Duke University Health System, who had at least two well-child visits before age one.

Patients were grouped as having later been diagnosed with ASD, ADHD, both conditions or no diagnosis. The researchers then analyzed the first-year records for hospital admissions, procedures, emergency department visits and outpatient clinical appointments.

For the children who were later found to have one or both of the diagnoses, their births tended to result in longer hospital stays compared to children without the disorders.

Children later diagnosed with ASD had higher numbers of procedures, including intubation and ventilation, and more outpatient specialty care visits for services such as physical therapy and eye appointments.

Children who were later found to have ADHD had more procedures, notably including blood transfusions, as well as more hospital admissions and more emergency department visits.

Studies show that treatments for these disorders work best when they begin early in a child's life, Dawson said. Understanding that there are signals available in a child's electronic health record could help lead to earlier and more targeted therapies.

"We are hopeful that these early utilization patterns can eventually be combined with other sources of data to build automated surveillance tools to help parents and pediatricians identify which kids will benefit most from early assessment and treatment," said researcher Scott Kollins.

The researchers said they plan to conduct additional analyses to explore more fully what specific health concerns prompted the extra doctor and hospital visits.

"We want to understand these distinctions in greater detail and identify them as soon as possible to make sure children have access to the resources they need," Engelhard said.