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The following article appeared in Developmental and Behavioral News, Volume 11, No. 1, Winter edition 2002. It has been reprinted with the permission of the editor, Copyright 2002.

Developmental and Behavioral News is a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Frances Page Glascoe, Ph.D., adjunct professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University, is the author.

First Signs would like to thank the staff at Developmental and Behavioral News for graciously allowing us to reprint their article.

From AAP Developmental and Behavioral News - Winter 2002

“First Signs” Launches National Campaign to Inform Physicians and Parents about Autism and Developmental Disorders

First Signs, a national awareness initiative, was recently launched in the state of New Jersey to inform the state’s physicians and parents about the early warning signs of autism and developmental disorders. The New Jersey pilot, which was launched in collaboration with UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and New Jersey Center for Outreach Services to the Autism Community (COSAC), was the first statewide campaign of its kind in the country.

Since First Signs announced its launch on April 27, 2001 in Washington D.C. before the Congressional Caucus on Autism, the non-profit organization has received hundreds of requests from pediatricians, parents, and other clinicians throughout the country for information about early identification and treatment. The organization hopes to create a national model for disseminating key information about early warning signs, the need for routine developmental screening, and the options available to parents of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

In the December 2001 issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, the editorial “Child Development in Pediatrics: Beyond Rhetoric”,1 First Signs is noted as an example of how parents are listening closely to the recent national emphasis on the importance of early childhood development. “Because parent groups have a long and special tradition of improving care for children, it is likely that they, rather than professional organizations, will be more effective in changing practice.”

First Signs grew out of the personal experience of founder, Nancy Wiseman, whose daughter was diagnosed with autism in 1998. Based on her daughter’s steady improvement through early identification and treatment, Wiseman, a marketing communications professional, had an important message to share with physicians and parents. “The high and growing incidence of autism and related disabilities demands greater awareness and improved early identification,” says Wiseman. “We don’t know how to prevent autism or how to cure it, but we do know that early and intensive treatment and intervention can profoundly change the quality of life for children at risk and their families. The key is early detection.”

To that end, the First Signs mission is to ensure the best developmental outcome for every child. By educating both parents and physicians, First Signs hopes to promote ongoing discussions regarding the most important and often overlooked aspects of development: social/emotional, communication, and behavior. Through an integrated mix of print and broadcast press, direct mail, public service announcements, speaking engagements, and their Web site, the First Signs campaign is focused on a primary target audience of physicians, parents, and family service organizations. The program has three principal components: a screening kit for pediatricians and family practitioners, an informational mailing to parents of children under three years of age, and a comprehensive Web site that provides evidence-based information for parents and professionals.

Physicians in participating states receive a mailing offering a First Signs Screening Kit that includes an educational video (hosted by Lesley Stahl of “60 Minutes”), a developmental milestones wall chart, validated screening tools for both developmental and autism screening, screening guidelines for physicians, and an early Intervention referral guide. The 20-minute video, On the Spectrum: Children and Autism, outlines the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorders, provides guidelines for conducting a developmental screening, and describes how to relay concerns to parents. On the Spectrum draws upon clinical expertise through interviews with some of the top experts in the field.

One of the initiative’s major goals is to encourage more pediatricians to refer young children to early intervention programs. In keeping with the recent AAP Policy Statement on the Pediatrician’s Role in the Diagnosis and Management of Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, First Signs recommends that a physician or nurse practitioner perform a routine developmental screening at every well visit for any type of atypical development. The First Signs Screening Guidelines leads physicians through the referral process for those children in need.

Parents of children under age three receive an informational mailing creating awareness around the hallmark milestones during each stage of development. A checklist of developmental milestones helps to serve as discussion points between parents and physicians. To minimize language and cultural barriers in parent populations, First Signs will test informational mailings to Head Start programs and day care centers in selected areas to see if family service workers can influence parents to have their children screened.

The First Signs Web site at provides physicians and parents with essential developmental information, an explanation of the screening process, a systematic guide that walks them through each stage of the process, listings of available local and national resources, and links to research, books, articles, and programs nationwide. Physicians and parents can become better informed about the different educational, biomedical, and alternative treatments for autism spectrum disorders.

First Signs is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatricians/New Jersey Chapter, Medical Society of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Pediatric Society. First Signs is funded by a number of foundations and government agencies, including Cure Autism Now, the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism, the Mellanby Autism Foundation, the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Autism at UMDNJ, and Parents of Autistic Children (POAC) of Ocean County.

To learn more about the initiative, visit the First Signs Web site at

[1] Zuckerman, B., Augustyn, M., Parker S., (2001). Child development in pediatrics: Beyond rhetoric. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med, 155, 1294-1295.

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