Autism Checklist Could Provide Diagnosis Before Age 1

April 28, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

Autism checklist: Researchers are developing a questionnaire to aid early autism diagnosis in children. World Autism Day, here in Central Park on April 2, 2009, helps to draw attention to the growing autism epidemic. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
Autism checklist: Researchers are developing a questionnaire to aid early autism diagnosis in children. World Autism Day, here in Central Park on April 2, 2009, helps to draw attention to the growing autism epidemic. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
An autism spectrum disorder (ASD) checklist is being developed that would take parents five minutes to complete before a doctor’s appointment to aid early diagnosis in children, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics on April 28.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers at the University of California San Diego's Department of Neurosciences created a network of 137 pediatricians in the San Diego area, and implemented a systematic screening program for babies at their one-year checkup.

“There is extensive evidence that early therapy can have a positive impact on the developing brain,” said chief investigator Karen Pierce in a press release. “The opportunity to diagnose and thus begin treatment for autism around a child’s first birthday has enormous potential to change outcomes for children affected with the disorder.”

More than 10,000 one-year-olds were screened in the study, after providing parents with a short questionnaire about their child’s communication, including use of eye contact, words, and gestures. If a baby failed the testing, further testing was carried out with re-evaluation every six months until age three.

One hundred and eighty-four babies required further testing, after failing the screening. Of these, so far 32 have been diagnosed with autism, either provisionally or finally, while 56 have language delay, and nine have developmental delay. Based on this, the positive predictive value of the checklist is 75 percent.

Following the screening, children diagnosed with ASD or developmental delay, and the majority of those with language delay began receiving treatment at an average age of 19 months.

"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," Pierce said.

Pediatrician Dr. Chrystal E. de Freitas took part in the study, and noticed that parents paid more attention to their child’s development after doing the survey.

“In addition to giving me the opportunity to do a more thorough evaluation, it allowed parents time to process the information that their child might have a development delay or autism—a message no parent wants to hear. But, by addressing these concerns early, the child can begin therapy that much sooner,” she said.

The researchers found that most of the pediatricians had not been systematically screening babies for ASD prior to the study. However, 96 percent said the program was useful and all will be adopting the technique.