Training primary care providers to accurately diagnose autism is yielding big dividends, researchers say, allowing children on the spectrum to be identified and start treatment far sooner.

Through a combination of in-person sessions and remote, video-based coaching over the course of a year, 18 primary care providers working across the state of Missouri learned to diagnose and treat autism.

The training was provided through a program known as ECHO Autism that connected pediatricians, family physicians and other primary care providers with a variety of autism experts including a clinical psychologist, a social worker, a dietician, a psychiatrist, a parent and a pediatrician specializing in the developmental disorder.

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For families treated by health care providers who participated in the program, researchers found that children were able to receive an autism diagnoses two to six months faster than if they had waited for a referral to the nearest autism center, according to findings published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

What’s more, they found that families avoided traveling an average of 173 miles by being able to see a local doctor instead.

“All participants reported that they had changed their practice as a result of participation in the program and they felt confident in their abilities to screen and diagnose autism early on, which is incredibly beneficial to families,” said Kristin Sohl of the University of Missouri-Columbia who directs the ECHO Autism program and is an author of the study.

Most health care providers who participated in the program said they saw an uptick in patients with autism in their practices and indicated that by the end of the program they were accepting referrals for autism evaluations from other providers, the study found.

The researchers said their findings support additional study of the training model on a larger scale.

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