Key Facts about Early Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

Early diagnosis is a catalyst for propelling children on positive trajectories. If a family and child identify and focus on areas of growth earlier rather than later, there is more time and more possibility of change and improvement. This tenant is particularly critical for diagnosing ASD in toddlerhood and early childhood.

Here are critical facts about the diagnosis of ASD in early childhood and the positive impact of early diagnosis on youngsters as they age into adulthood.

  1. Most children with ASD are not diagnosed until approximately 4 years-old, yet ASD can be reliably identified by the age of 2. There is also expanding research on early identification of infants who may be at risk for ASD. Early detection is possible.
  2. Genes play an important role in ASD. A child’s odds of having an ASD diagnosis increases if he/she has a sibling or parent with ASD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), intellectual disability, schizophreniadepression, bipolar disorder or anxiety. Family medical history is an important factor for families considering a diagnostic evaluation.
  3. Co-occurring disorders (such as anxiety and depression) are more likely in individuals with ASD than the general population. Identifying emotion regulation issues in early childhood is thus essential.
  4. Neuroplasticity matters. Because ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, early treatment improves neuroplastic brain functioning and subsequent behavior. As a child develops, his/her brain becomes less plastic.
  5. Interventions geared at a child’s “first relationships” with their caregivers may exert a strong positive effect on the developmental trajectories of toddlers at high-risk of ASD and also have a positive impact on a child’s social skills with peers as they age.
  6. Research indicates that parent-child interactions in early childhood predict long-term gains in language skills into adulthood for individuals with diagnoses of ASD. Acquiring communicative, pragmatic and useful language by kindergarten has also been identified as a strong predictor of adaptive or functional “real life” skills, which are needed to navigate the environment in adolescence and adulthood.
  7. Social skills instruction in a child’s early years increases competency with peers in school. This social competency is associated with greater adaptive independence in children with ASD.
  8. Working with a “diagnostic navigator” early in your child’s life improves outcomes. Research clearly indicates that social support is vital to relieve stress associated with caregiving for a child with ASD and that a positive parent–professional relationship is helpful in alleviating family stress.

If you suspect your child has or is at higher risk for ASD and you are looking for a “diagnostic navigator” for your child, consider an evaluation with NESCA.  While early diagnosis of ASD can make a positive impact on a child’s trajectory, obtaining the accurate diagnosis and recommendations for interventions at any age is critical.



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Mayo, J., Chlebowski, C., Fein, D.A. et al. Age of First Words Predicts Cognitive Ability and Adaptive Skills in Children with ASD. J Autism Dev Disord 43, 253–264 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1558-0.

Siller, M., Swanson, M., Gerber, A., Hutman, T., & Sigman, M. (2014). A parent-mediated intervention that targets responsive parental behaviors increases attachment behaviors in children with ASD: results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(7), 1720-1732.

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About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Visual Skill and Academic Success – Looking Past 20/20 Vision

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Community-Based Skills Coach

When a school nurse pulls a child into his or her office to complete a basic eye screening, he or she may write, “20/20 vision in both eyes. No visual concerns.” This child has successfully looked at an eye chart and read the letters; demonstrated the ability to look straight ahead, from an appropriate distance without things becoming blurry or illegible; and demonstrated visual acuity, or the ability to see with acceptable clarity.

But does this necessarily mean there are no concerns?

Visual acuity measures whether a stimulus is being seen – not necessarily if the information is truly being understood. The visual system is a complex part of the central nervous systems that incorporates the eyes, ocular pathways and brain to produce and interpret sight. It requires consistent communication between all of these individual anatomical pieces, the vestibular system and the skeletomuscular system. Essentially, vision is complicated and messy and requires many many different skills.

Breaking It Down

In terms of visual skills needed for academic success, we often break things down into three main areas: ocular motor control, visual perception and visual motor integration.

  • Ocular motor control describes the ability to physically move the eyes using the 9 ocular muscles. It encompasses the ability to track an object across a screen or a line of text across a book, or the ability to look up at the board and then quickly refocus on a sheet on paper on the desk. Imagine trying to watch a basketball game without the ability to track the ball across the screen smoothly. It quickly becomes tiring and frustrating. Occupational therapists often refer to these specific eye movements with technical terms, such as visual saccades, pursuits, convergence/divergence and accommodation. But in essence they describe eye movement.
  • Visual perception or visual processing is in many ways more nuanced. It focuses on the brain’s ability to organize, interpret and fully understand the information it receives from the eyes. Two main skills needed at school are visual figure ground and visual closure.
    • Visual figure ground is the ability to discern relevant information from a busy or cluttered background. A student with visual figure ground difficulty may not be able to search a busy white board and find a homework assignment. These students may also be visually overwhelmed by a worksheet with 20 math problems, but successful with the same problems presented individually.
    • Visual closure is a skill that specifically helps with reading efficiency and fluency. It is the ability to identify or visualize a complete form or picture when given incomplete visual information or when only a small piece of the image is shown. Visual closure allows us to read a sentence quickly without stopping to decode each individual letter. It is aslo oen raeosn taht mnay pelope can raed setneces wtih julmbled up ltetres. We recognize the form, not simply the sequential letters.  :  )
    • Visual closure plays a role in sight words and reading partially-covered papers or street signs in the community. While there are many more important visual perception skills, these two examples have functional, measurable effects in the classroom setting and are commonly identified through occupational therapy testing.
  • Visual motor integration (VMI) describes the ability to use all of these foundational visual skills in conjunction with foundational motor skills. It is the ability to interpret visual information and produce a precise motor response. In the classroom, this affects a student’s ability to copy shapes, produce legible handwriting and use scissors to cut along a line. Not only can these things be difficult, they can be exhausting as a child tries to use all of these skills at once.

While all of these visual components have multiple layers and intricacies, it is important to simply acknowledge that there’s more than the eye can see when it comes to vision. A child who “can’t see the board,” but has 20/20 vision, may just be visually overwhelmed. A child who looks at a page full of small block text and immediately gives up may not have the visual skill to read across a line. And a child who is learning to read beautifully, but still has difficult forming the letters in his name may have poor visual motor integration. Fortunately, there are many interventions and accommodations that can help build on and develop these skills further to foster confidence and success in the class and community.

About the Author:

Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in pediatrics and occupational therapy in the developing world. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as well as social skills coaching as part of NESCA’s transition team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. In addition to her work at NESCA, Dr. Bellenis works as a school-based occupational therapist for the city of Salem Public Schools and believes that individual sensory needs, and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.