Autism Spectrum Disorder — The Importance of Early Identification and Behavior Intervention

By Donald Sharps, M.D.
CalOptima Behavioral Health Medical Director


Early identification of children with delays in development or those at risk of delays provides primary care providers with a critical opportunity to pinpoint special health care needs. 

The main path to the early identification is a developmental screening in the primary care setting. In particular, early identification of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can help a child significantly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), early treatment services can improve a child’s development by helping the child talk, walk and interact with others. Therefore, it is important to screen children for ASD or any other developmental problems in their early years. 

The CDC and CalOptima recommend that all children be screened for developmental delays and disabilities during regular well-child doctor visits at: 
  • 9 months
  • 18 months
  • 24 or 30 months

If a child is at high risk for developmental problems due to preterm birth, low birth weight or other reasons, additional screenings might be required.

Additionally, all children should be screened specifically for ASD during regular well-child doctor visits at:

  • 18 months
  • 24 motnhs

Further screenings might be needed if a child is at high risk for ASD (e.g., having a sibling or other family member with ASD) or if behaviors sometimes associated with ASD are present.

Identifying a child as having a special health care need is only the first step. Once developmental delays are identified then an appropriate diagnostic work-up and follow-up must occur. It is in this next step that the relationship between the primary care provider and an early behavior intervention service becomes critical.

Effective September 15, 2014, CalOptima covers behavioral health treatment for ASD. This treatment includes Applied Behavior Analysis and other behavior intervention services. The services help develop or restore, as much as possible, the daily functioning of a member with ASD.

If the developmental screening is positive for signs of developmental delays associated with ASD, you may be able to conduct the additional assessment for ASD, or you may refer the patient to a specialist for a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. Alternatively, Medi-Cal members can call the Orange County Mental Health Plan Access Line at 1-800-723-8641 to request the evaluation or to access other mental health services.





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