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Connecting the Dots: a cluster-randomized clinical trial integrating standardized autism spectrum disorders screening, high-quality treatment, and long-term outcomes



Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects one in 54 children in the United States of America, and supporting people with ASD across the lifespan presents challenges that impact individuals, families, and communities and can be quite costly. The American Academy of Pediatrics has issued recommendations for routine ASD screening at 18 and 24 months, but some research suggests that few pediatricians perform high-fidelity, standardized screening universally. Furthermore, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) found insufficient evidence to recommend for or against universal ASD screening. The objective of this study is to test the hypothesis that children with ASD who have high fidelity; standardized screening will achieve superior outcomes at 5 years of age compared to children receiving usual care ASD detection strategies.


This is a cluster-randomized, controlled clinical trial in 3 sites in the USA. Pediatric practices will be randomized to implement universal, standardized, high-fidelity toddler screening or usual care, with randomization stratified by the practice size. The study will enroll 3450 children, approximately half in each group. From this sample, we anticipate 100 children to be diagnosed with ASD. Children in both groups receiving an ASD diagnosis will be administered the Early Start Denver Model, an evidence-based early intervention addressing social, communication, and cognitive functioning. Treatment will last for 1 year, with up to 20 h per week of therapy for children with ASD.


Primary outcomes measured at baseline, following treatment, and at 4 and 5 years of age include ASD symptom severity (Brief Observation of Social Communication Change (BOSCC)) and cognitive functioning (Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL) and Differential Abilities Scale-II (DAS-II)). Secondary outcomes in children include measures of adaptive functioning, ASD symptoms, and kindergarten readiness; secondary analyses will also examine stress and empowerment among parents. Several novel exploratory measures will be included as well. The study will utilize a modified intention-to-treat analysis.


This trial will evaluate the impact of universal, standardized, high-fidelity screening for ASD among children at 18 months of age, with a goal of providing evidence to support this strategy to detect ASD in toddlers in order to start treatment as young as possible and maximize outcomes.

Ethics and dissemination

This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Drexel University (IRB protocol: 1607004653). All findings will be provided by the principal investigator via email; data will be available through the NIMH Data Archive ( ).

Trial registration NCT03333629 . Registered on November 7, 2017.

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