Simple test helps spot autism

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The study is the first to show that a simple screening tool could be used to detect autism in infants, said Dr. Lisa Gilotty, who heads the autism program.

Autism is a complex and mysterious brain disorder which strikes one in 110 children in the United States and affects four times as many boys as girls.

The disorder is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication and understanding other people's emotions and behaviour.

It is usually first diagnosed in early childhood, around the age of 3, and recent studies have shown that the earlier that children are diagnosed and treated, the better they do.

For the study, researchers put together a network of 137 paediatricians in the San Diego area, who systematically started screening all babies at their one-year check up.

As part of the screening program, parents answered a survey, rating their babies on questions such as "When your child plays with toys, does he/she look at you to see if you are watching?" or "Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?"

Any baby who failed the screening was referred to university's autism centre for more testing. These children were re-tested every six months until age 3, when they were likely to show signs of autism.

Of the more than 10,000 infants, 184 failed the initial screening, and 75% of these children ended up with some problem. Of the total, 32 of the children have received an autism diagnosis, 56 had a language delay, nine were developmentally delayed and 36 were categorized as having some other issue.

After the screening program, all toddlers diagnosed with autism or developmental delay, and 89% of those with language delay were referred for behavioural therapy around the age 17 months. On average, these children began receiving treatment at 19 months.

Dr. Chrystal de Freitas, a paediatrician who participated in the study, said parents who got the screening paid more attention to their child's development, and it helped prepare some for potentially bad news.

Surveys of the doctors before the program showed that most had not been screening infants in any systematic way for autism. But after the study, 96% said they have continued using the screening tool.

Have you met someone with autism?

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