PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Early on, Maressa Cepeda knew something was wrong with her son Conner. At 2 years old, he was having outbursts and still couldn't talk. Last April, right as COVID-19 hit, Cepeda took him to the doctor in search of answers.
"All I was told is that we had to see a developmental pediatrician and it was nearly impossible to find one," said Cepeda. Conner was referred to Phoenix Children's Hospital to get an autism evaluation, but Cepeda says he never got in.
"Up until this day, they have not called us to schedule an appointment," said Cepeda. Cepeda said she waited nine months before looking elsewhere. Finally, she got an appointment at another facility where he was officially diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. It was a sigh of relief for a family desperate for help. Meanwhile, experts said the pandemic is creating a delay in autism diagnoses for kids.
"When that process is delayed, we are robbing that child of time that is better spent on intervention," said Dr. Christopher Smith, chief science officer for Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.
"The transition for him is nearly impossible."
Smith said less parents were taking their kids to their pediatricians during the pandemic, and some doctors were not seeing patients unless it was essential. "That means there are fewer opportunities for young children to get screening," said Smith.
Smith said kids being out of the classroom is also contributing to the delay in diagnoses. "Teachers are very good at identifying differences and when children need support," said Smith.
Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center recently launched the "Easy Access Autism Screening Program." It provides free screenings over the phone to determine if a child has a developmental delay. If so, staff members can provide resources for parents. Arizona's Family reached out to Phoenix Children's Hospital to see if the pandemic is impacting the waitlist to see a developmental pediatrician. A spokesperson could not provide an answer as of Thursday night.