Pediatricians seeing three times the autism patients in five years

‘Parents don’t, in my experience, come with a perfectly well child,’ says pediatrician Harriet Hiscock

Australian pediatricians are seeing more new patients with autism, accordin­g to a study that shows the proportion of first consult­ations taken up by the diagnosis has risen from 5 per cent to 15 per cent in just five years.

Associate professor Harriet Hiscock, from the Murdoch Child­rens Research Institute, yesterday said a follow-up to her previous study, which was published in theMedical Journal of Australia, found autism was taking up more of the pediatric workload.

Dr Hiscock said across more than 7000 consultations by 180 ­pediatricians, the proportion of first-time visits where an autism diagnosis was involved had risen from 5 per cent in 2008 to 15 per cent in 2013.

“Is it because parents are more aware and are going to their doctor seeking a referral to a pediatrician?’’ she asked.

“Is it the pediatricians who are more aware?

“Unfortunately we just don’t have that kind of data in Australia to know for sure.”

The follow-up study, which has yet to be published, comes as the national disability insurance scheme considers how to best manage demand based on need.

The Australian revealed this week that the number of children with autism had caught planners by surprise — making up half of all participants in a South Australian trial — and raised questions of how the $22 billion disability scheme would operate.

While about one in 100 Australians are thought to have autism, or up to 2 per cent of school-aged children, Dr Hiscock said that estimates were difficult as not everyone was screened and the tests themselves were largely subjective and the rate of best practice not known.

A landmark Swedish study, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this year, examined people with autism-like symptoms over a 10-year period.

It found no increase in numbers, only that the type of people who went undiagnosed in the past were now being diagnosed.

Dr Hiscock, who has been a pediatrician for 15 years, said the Swedish study aligned with what she had seen in her practice.

“More recently, we’re seeing children on the milder end of the spectrum coming in for a diagnosis but we’re not seeing an increase on the more severe end of the spectrum,” she said.

“Children with a milder form of autism who just have problems forming relationships, things like that, may have slipped under the radar before, whereas those with more severe symptoms would have been harder to miss.”

While the follow-up study picked up children who required an early diagnosis to benefit from a Medicare program, Dr Hiscock said the perception that autism may have been overdiagnosed for financial reasons didn’t ring true. “Parents don’t, in my experience, come with a perfectly well child,” she said.

After the study was completed, new diagnostic procedures were introduced for a broader category of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

It includes three levels of functionality which the NDIS — while encouraging early intervention in autism cases — will use to determine those most in need.