Background Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is on the rise globally and is the leading cause of disease burden in children between the ages of 0 and 14 years in Singapore. Early identification of ASD is vital for timely referrals to specialists for early intervention which confers a better prognosis. Barriers that contribute to the delayed diagnosis of ASD include inadequate knowledge and inaccurate beliefs about ASD among healthcare professionals. Surveys on ASD awareness among medical professionals date back to the 1980s and have shown that ASD is an often-misunderstood condition with misperceptions about clinical features prognosis, and management.
Objectives This study aims to evaluate the awareness of ASD among Paediatricians and other healthcare professionals in Singapore, and to identify gaps in their knowledge that could impede early diagnosis and intervention for ASD.
Methods Healthcare professionals from various institutions were recruited to participate in this study. A survey was conducted online via Google Forms and comprised questions on demographic information, perception and knowledge of ASD.
Results Of 181 healthcare professionals who completed the survey, 89% worked with preschool children regularly. Yet only 43.7% felt confident in identifying signs of ASD, and only 27.1% had undergone previous training on ASD. Only 8.3% correctly identified all four early warning signs of ASD. Although 97.2% felt it was necessary to refer children with suspected ASD to specialists, only 49.7% would refer immediately, with 31.5% still practicing a ‘watch and wait’ approach. Some professional groups were more likely to believe in alternative therapies for ASD than others.
Conclusions Results of study show that many Paediatricians and primary healthcare professionals in Singapore still lack the ability to correctly identify early warning signs of ASD. Furthermore, misconceptions about ‘outgrowing ASD’ along with the misunderstandings on the communicative and cognitive abilities of children with ASD seem little different from earlier surveys dating back to the 1980s. In addition, more than half (73%) of our survey respondents had not received prior training on ASD, which could explain the gap in knowledge of ASD. In order to bridge the gap in knowledge and to raise awareness of ASD among healthcare professionals, more clinical forums and workshops should be held. Keeping abreast with child development and common neurodevelopmental disorders should be an important part of our Continued Medical Education (CME) efforts as members of the healthcare community here in Singapore.
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