Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by deficits in communication and reciprocal social interactions. Little research has focused on the evaluation of developmental/behavioral pediatric education in the physician assistant (PA) curriculum. Therefore, the aims of this study were to evaluate whether PA students received training in identifying the red flags of ASD, using screening tests such as the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised with Follow-Up (M-CHAT-R/F). Additionally, the study sought to determine if PA students received education on the evaluation and management of children with ASD along with the methods to communicate effectively with their caretakers.
A survey open to PA students was administered by the American Academy of PAs. Demographic information along with questions on knowledge and perceptions related to ASD were asked. Perceptions of preparation to discuss ASD with patient caregivers were assessed, along with vaccination beliefs, and training information was collected.
A total of 213 PA students answered the survey. Students received training regarding the red flags for ASD as well as ASD-related skills. Of note, 58.2% did not receive training on administration of the M-CHAT-(R/F) and 54.9% did not receive training to provide care to patients with ASD; 77.8% received training to understand pediatric developmental milestones. PA students overwhelmingly rejected the suggestion that there is a link between vaccines and ASD.
The importance of diagnosing ASD as early as possible has been demonstrated by years of research; yet, this study concludes that many students still do not feel comfortable recognizing the red flags or using screening tools. Although the majority of PA students received training to understand developmental milestones, many did not know how to administer the M-CHAT-(R/F), which is key to making an early diagnosis.