State of the science review of advances in autism research aimed at clinicians supporting families affected by ASD

January 13, 2014

Canada's top autism researchers have published a guide to help physicians and health care professionals meet the needs of children and families affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

"Autism spectrum disorder: advances in evidence based practice" released today, was authored by NeuroDevNet investigators, whose research informs the publication.

The impetus for producing a guide for clinicians now is the tremendous change taking place within the ASD field, according to co-author Dr. Lonnie Zwaigenbaum, co-lead of NeuroDevNet's autism research group, and a clinician researcher based at the University of Alberta. "There are new diagnostic criteria," he says, "and ongoing concerns regarding rising rates of autism being reported internationally. "

"At the same time," says Zwaigenbaum, "research advances in the early detection of ASD highlight the variability in both assessment models, and access to specialized assessment and treatment across the country. There has been considerable progress in identifying genes for ASD, he adds, "with advances in testing that can be accessed through clinical labs."

Zwaigenbaum and colleagues note that increased awareness of ASD is placing huge demands on health care systems and health care professionals to help children and their families cope with the disorder. Based on their comprehensive review of current evidence, the co-authors hope this "state of the science paper will serve as a guide, rather than a clinical practice guideline - one that provides clinicians and families with a comprehensive update that will accelerate uptake of new findings into clinical practice and support high quality care to individuals with ASD across the country."

ASD, which includes a variety of traits that range from mild to severe, is estimated to affect about 1% of the population, although it is under-recognized in the developing world. The review, drawing on the expertise of  specialists in pediatrics, psychiatry, epidemiology, neurology and genetics from across Canada, outlines the current understanding of ASD and best practices for pediatricians, family doctors and specialist clinics, and identifies resources for clinicians.

Topics include:
• What causes autism?
• How is ASD diagnosed?
• How can ASD be detected early?
• What other illnesses or conditions are associated with ASD?
• What treatments and interventions are available and effective?

The co-authors chose to publish in CMAJ, as the journal’s primary readership are community physicians, who play an essential role in identifying early signs of ASD, and ensuring timely diagnosis. "The greatest impact on outcomes will come from careful attention to parents' concerns, observing early social and communication skills," write the co-authors. "CMAJ has broad reach," says Zwaigenbaum, "and thus potential to influence practice across the country."

The paper is just one component of NeuroDevNet's autism research group's work in promoting the translation of research into practice, concludes Zwaigenbaum."Other continuing education and training activities as well as family-clinician-researcher-policymaker partnerships remain high priorities for us."