A quick and simple questionnaire filled out by parents may help detect autism in children as young as 1 year old, a new study suggests.
The 24-item questionnaire, which assesses a child’s ability to communicate with eye contact, sounds, and gestures, may guide infants who show early signs of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) into appropriate treatments at earlier ages.
"Most of the studies on autism are on adolescents and adults," says Karen Pierce, Ph.D., lead author of the study and an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego.
"Some [are] on children, but very few people have the ability to study autism in babies, because we can’t diagnose it until 3 or 4 years. How in the world are we going to discover the causes if we’re studying brains that have had a lifetime of living with autism, and [have] a host of compensatory mechanisms?"
According to the CDC, the average age of ASD diagnosis is 5 years old, though most of these children show signs of developmental problems before age 3. Clinicians often rely on behavioral clues to diagnose autism.
The questionnaire used in the study simply asks parents to identify whether their baby displays certain types of communication "often," "sometimes," or "not yet." It takes about five minutes to fill out and can be scored immediately.
The checklist is not specific to autism but "will tell you something is wrong," Pierce says. The checklist could detect early signs of autism or another type of language or developmental delay.
So, what is the benefit of an earlier diagnosis of autism? Theoretically, earlier treatment might influence how connections between neurons are being made in the brain, greatly influencing a child’s emotional and social development, according to Pierce.