The effort could ultimately enhance the procedures used by medical doctors, school psychologists, and clinical psychologists to assess symptoms and properly diagnose patients.
The research includes one of the first series of comprehensive statistical analyses of current ASD and mental health assessment measures. The research will inform professionals about the measures' utility for diagnostic decision-making, treatment planning, and monitoring response to treatment over time.
"Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction, communication, and behavior with onset in early childhood," says Pandolfi, associate professor of school psychology at RIT. "However, specific symptoms can vary widely between individuals and autism can present differently within the same person over time, making diagnosis challenging."
Research also indicates that individuals with ASD frequently present with an accompanying emotional and/or behavioral disorder that requires specific treatment. Unfortunately, it is often hard to accurately identify disorders like depression and anxiety in autistic patients, because many of these individuals have difficulty accurately reporting their symptoms and they may have atypical presentations of mental health problems compared with the general population.
Pandolfi notes that identifying reliable and valid measures for these patients will help clinicians more properly diagnose individuals so treatment can begin as soon as possible.
The research group has also conducted surveys of school-based professionals to assess their levels of training and confidence related to working with students with ASD. The results will inform the field about training needs of school psychologists and other school professionals and will help identify future directions for research.
"The earlier we can detect ASD and co-occurring emotional and behavioral disorders, the earlier we can provide specific treatment and hopefully improve the quality of life of affected individuals and their families," adds Pandolfi.
The research team also includes Dr. Caroline Magyar, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Charles Dill, professor of psychology at Hofstra University.