A five-minute checklist may help doctors diagnose cases of autism in children earlier than ever, a new study reports.
The questionnaire, which can be filled out in pediatrician waiting rooms, asks caregivers about a child’s use of eye gaze, sounds, words, gestures, objects and other forms of age-appropriate communication. It is meant to detect ASD, language delay and developmental delay.
Any child that exhibits symptoms of an ASD is referred for further testing and re-evaluated every six months until age 3.
Of the 10,479 infants screened for the study, 32 were identified as having ASD – consistent with current rates that would be detected at 12 months – and recommended for behavioral therapy, according to researchers. The average age of the children recommended for therapy in the study was 17 months.
Early diagnosis is important for autism because it allows children to start treatment sooner, which can greatly improve later development and learning. CDC estimates from 2009 indicate that, on average, children do not receive a diagnosis until age 6.
“Beyond this exciting proof of concept, such a screening program would answer parents’ concerns about their child’s possible ASD symptoms earlier and with more confidence than has ever been done before,” said Thomas Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in a press release.
Researchers also also surveyed the participating pediatricians and found that 96 percent of the pediatricians rated the program positively, and 100 percent of the practices have continued using the screening tool.
“In the context of a virtual lack of universal screening at 12 months, this program is one that could be adopted by any pediatric office, at virtually no cost, and can aid in the identification of children with true developmental delays,” said Dr. Karen Pierce, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego, and study author.
The next steps, according to researchers, should seek to further validate and refine this screening tool, track children until a much older age, and assess barriers to treatment follow up.
The study was published in the journal Pediatrics.