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CARD-USF Joins FIRST WORDS® Project in Promoting Screening and Intervention for Autism in Children Under 2

TAMPA, Fla. (Sept. 25, 2017) -- The Center for Autism and Related Disabilities at the University of South Florida (CARD-USF) in Tampa is now collaborating with the Florida State Autism Institute to bring the FIRST WORDS® Project to Tampa Bay. This National Institutes of Health-funded research initiative aims to improve screening and identification of autism and other communication delays in children before 24 months old and to help better connect them to intervention services.

“With effective early intervention, most children with [autism] can expect to enter traditional kindergarten classes,” said Amy Wetherby, PhD, the director of the FIRST WORDS Project. “The key is to begin intervention while the toddler’s brain is still forming and in a state of neuroplasticity.”

To achieve these goals, the FIRST WORDS Project has developed a new online screening tool, the Smart Early Screening for Autism and Communication Disorders (Smart ESAC). Primary care providers or early childhood professionals can use this tool to start screening children for communication delays at 9 months old and autism at 12 months rather than the 18 months currently recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The system also includes a parent portal where families can provide updated information and complete e-monitoring from home. If communication delays or autism are suspected, the FIRST WORDS team will follow-up with the families and offer to conduct a free, diagnostic evaluation. The project will refer families with toddlers suspected of autism to CARD-USF, which will help connect families with early intervention services and provide support.

“We are currently working to identify medical professionals who would complete the early screenings,” said Karen Berkman, PhD, executive director of CARD-USF. “The sooner a child is diagnosed, the sooner he or she can start receiving intervention that leads to positive outcomes. By sharing our expertise with the FIRST WORDS Project in our shared communities, we will expand options for families while building capacity within the medical community.”

Primary care physicians along with other health care and early education providers who serve children under 2 years old in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Orange counties are invited to collaborate with the project and become Smart ESAC providers. They can contact Olivia Macdonald, research coordinator in the Tampa satellite office of FIRST WORDS Project, at or 813-388-0507.

Story by Tina Meketa, University Communications and Marketing

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