Asperger's Screener Could Save A Life

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Asperger's syndrome is often described as a mild form of autism. It is often not diagnosed until adulthood, which can cause a lifetime of difficulties. But thanks to an autism research center and a determined mom, there's a quick and easy way to get some answers.

"I believe that if we could have put in place the proper supports for Dave, we would never have gone down the path of depression," Patty Dion said to Ivanhoe.

But Patty Dion's son, Dave wasn't diagnosed with Asperger's until he was 34, after decades of therapies and drugs for other disorders. He killed himself shortly after.

Dion continued, "You can just imagine how devastating that was for our family. But the needless suffering and challenges that our son went through because we didn't have a correct diagnosis..."

Enter Chris Smith of the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, or SARCC. He interviewed 30 people with Asperger's about their symptoms, crunched the data, and came up with a quick way to screen kids.

"One of the benefits of the Dave screener, the social challenges screening questionnaire, is that it's quick and easy. It's complete. It's 15 yes or no questions." Christopher J. Smith, PhD, SARRC Research Director explained.

Teachers or parents answer the questions. Kids who get six or more "yesses" are directed to see a specialist.

"This project is really about offering opportunity to detect those individuals before they have more serious functional impairment," Smith stated.

Tom Doebler brought the screener to one of Arizona's public charter schools. He expects a big impact.

"It's just another step in breaking down misunderstanding about autism spectrum disorder in schools and outside the schools, and that's something I just jumped on," Tom Doebler, Great Hearts National Director of Exceptional Student Services explained to Ivanhoe. (Read Full Interview)

In that first year, four students in Great Hearts Academy were directed to get more intensive testing; that's about the number experts expected to find. Chris Smith's hope is for universal screening for social challenges in elementary school, just like hearing and vision screening. You can also download the screener for free. The app is called "Think Asperger's" on iTunes or Google Play.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising Producer; Wendy Chioji, Field Producer; Bruce Maniscalco, Videographer; Gabriella Battistiol, Assistant Producer; Roque Correa, Editor.

BACKGROUND: Asperger's Syndrome is what doctors call a "high-functioning" type of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The symptoms start early in life, and include not being able to make eye contact, being awkward in social situations, and missing obvious social skills. Another sign is lack of emotions and expressions in the face even when happy or sad. People with Asperger's may talk in a robotic voice, and focus and spend a lot of time in one particular topic like rocks or football. They dislike change and often repeat themselves quite often.

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: If a parent notices signs then he or she may need to see a specialist in cognitive behavior and mental health. Even though symptoms occur in childhood, many adults are actually diagnosed with Asperger's. Many children are put on waiting lists for diagnosis of autism; however, having a formal diagnosis can help not only with understanding the behaviors that go along with this condition, but also with accommodations that may give support.

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: Diagnosing Asperger's can be difficult. There are now questionnaires that are free and available online to decide whether or not a child should seek professional help in diagnosing Asperger's. A couple of tests include the Adult Asperger Assessment and the DAVE screening. An early diagnosis allows children to be taught by highly trained people how to cope and how to reach full potential when brain plasticity is more pronounced.

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