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Does Your Toddler Point at Airplanes? How Early Autism Screening Helps Families and Public Health

“Does your child point with one finger to show you something interesting, such as an airplane in the sky, or a big truck in the road?”

An array of questions like this one, asked by a pediatrician or other professional to parents of toddlers, makes up one of the best standardized measures that can detect possible signs of autism early—the first step toward early intervention with services to help kids on the spectrum develop strong social and other skills they need to thrive in a challenging world.

But individual parents aren’t the only ones who should be concerned about early screenings. When you add up the entire population of individual parents and pediatricians learning, or not, about what to look for, there is a combined big-picture impact. National trends in who gets screened for autism and when they do are important public health considerations that policymakers and leaders across social and health systems need to address, for the good of all children and families across the population. And in that realm there are still a lot of unanswered questions.

Diana Robins, PhD, works with a toddler in the clinic area of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco

That’s where the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute comes in. As the first autism research center in the U.S. with a focus on public health science, Drexel’s institute is involved in a slew of recently begun research projects aiming to improve early detection and intervention for all children in the population. Diana Robins, PhD, joined the institute in 2014 to lead this research program area in early detection and intervention.

Robins has helped us compile this primer on what parents need to know about early autism screening and how this information relates to the bigger picture in public health.

Universal Screening for Autism

Recognizing and Reacting to Early Signs of Autism

Unequal Access to Screening

Bottom Line

Ways to Get Involved

Parents in the Philadelphia region interested in volunteering for practice testing, which helps train the staff on the research projects, can contact the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at or 215.571.4824 or 215.571.4825.

Parents also can encourage their pediatricians to participate in one of Drexel’s screening studies. Please share this flyer with your pediatrician and ask them to contact the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute for more information.

Community partners, including pediatricians, family practice physicians, nurse-practitioners who see toddlers, staff from public agencies such as WIC, Early Head Start, child care centers and faith-based organizations interested in joining a screening study can contact the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at or 215.571.4824 or 215.571.4825.

Members of the news media interested in interviewing Diana Robins or learning more about ongoing research at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute should contact Rachel Ewing, 215.895.2614 or

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