The Role Of Family Physicians In Treating Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Family physicians play a key role in recognizing and managing autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in children. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians and family medicine doctors perform developmental evaluations and autism screening to detect early signs of ASD at a baby's 18- and 24-month well-child visits.

If these initial screenings suggest developmental delays, a family physician can then refer the child to the appropriate specialists for comprehensive diagnostic evaluation. However, even following a formal diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, your family doctor remains a critical provider of your child's overall health care and may oversee management of the disorder.

Coordinating Care

While your family physician may be the health care professional responsible for coordinating your child's care through an interdisciplinary team, he or she will also treat any autism- associated medical conditions your child may have. Children with autism often suffer from gastrointestinal disorders, sleep disturbances, sensory problems, or seizure disorders. However, if your child suffers from anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hyperactivity, or a combination of these disorders in addition to autism, your family doctor will likely refer him or her to a behavioral medicine specialist or pediatric psychiatrist for further psychological evaluation. In many cases, a medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder also requires educational evaluation and referral to specialized services, which may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, and/or physical therapy.

Managing Autism Care

With ASDs affecting about 1 of every 150 children in this country, ongoing medical care plays a crucial role in enhancing an autistic child's quality of life. When managing your child's care, your family doctor will educate your family about the disorder and direct you toward supportive therapies and interventions to help your child become more functionally independent and socially competent.

When working with the other health care professionals on your child's treatment team, your family doctor may co-manage medications prescribed for your child to treat medical issues and maladaptive behaviors such as repetitive behaviors, obsessions, compulsions, anxiety, or hyperactivity. Your family physician can also rule out medical causes for maladaptive behavior before choosing the use of psychiatric medication.

Providing On-Going Medical Care

Your family doctor will continue to give your autistic child the required medical care when he or she is sick. In addition, your child will still need regular physical checkups throughout the childhood and teen years to monitor his or her developmental progress, keep immunizations up to date, and identify other health problems early.

Your doctor also knows your family's medical history; therefore, he or she can take steps to reduce your child's risk of certain medical conditions or even prevent them from developing. Well-child visits also ensure that treatment for any current medical conditions your child has (whether autism related or not) is still effective. But even when seeing to your child's basic health care needs, your family doctor will take into account his or her autism.

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