New Early-Detection Tool for Autism on the Horizon

Early intervention can be enormously helpful in the treatment of autism, but the condition has so far been difficult to screen for in children under 18 months.

Now, it may be possible to pick up warning signs earlier, with the help of a questionnaire for pediatricians to use developed by researchers at the University of North Carolina. The promising results of the tool were released July 13 on the university's Health Care page.

Using birth records, researchers sent the survey to North Carolina residents who had children nearing the age of 12 months. Nearly 700 parents completed the 63-question "First Year Inventory" (FYI) which asks about typical skill functions identifiable in 12-month-olds such as reflexes, social skills, and hearing-all associated with normal human development.

"Many of the parents at 12 months were not concerned about their child's development. They filled it out because they were helpful, not necessarily because they were worried about their child," study co-author Lauren Turner-Brown, a researcher with the Program for Early Autism, Research, Leadership and Service at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine told Yahoo! Shine. "It's before the point that any parent typically will be noticing something is different."

One question asks parents to "indicate consonant sounds the infant produces," with others ranging from "Does your baby look at you when you call his name? Answer, Never - seldom - often" and "What does it take to get your child to look at you?"

Parents who completed the questionnaire during their child's first year of life completed additional screenings at age 3. "At age 3, we sent another series of questionnaires to families," Turner-Brown explained. "One was a response asking parents, do you have any concerns about your child, do they have any behavioral disorders?," Turner-Brown said. "We did a diagnosis of about 40 children and we confirmed 9 cases of high-risk autism out of that sample of 699."

Researchers found these results validating. Only 4 of the 9 students tested positive for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) based off the tool, and they used that information to develop which scores were vindicated as high-risk.

"The First Year Inventory is not yet ready for physician use, I think we're a few years away from that," Turner-Brown said. "Pediatricians are screening for autism at 18-24 months and we are targeting 12-month-olds." She also added that the UNC questionnaire is longer than what doctors would ideally like to use.

ASD symptoms are most commonly noticed between 15 and 18 months of a child's life and range widely in behavioral patterns. The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses early detection as beneficial to intervention based on trends that the earlier a child receives treatment, the less services they will need throughout adolescence.

Donna Rochelle, 45, of Yonkers, N.Y. has a 9-year-old son who suffers from low-end sensory autism but did not receive a clinical diagnosis until he was roughly four-and-a-half years old. "We knew something more was wrong and my biggest problem was that the doctors didn't have any information," Rochelle said. "4-5 years old is too late to be testing because it doesn't matter what they have, the signs are there. If this screening had been public when my son first showed signs at 2 years old, I think we would have gotten more help."

Although there is no cure for autism related disorders, specialized treatments can mitigate the severity of the child's condition and promote healthy development.

Researchers stress that the questionnaire is not a diagnostic tool but can help identify infants that are at high-risk. At the very least, the screening can be used to alert parents to seek medical evaluation from a clinical doctor and receive beneficial early intervention within the first years of life.

The University of North Carolina is also in the process of designing two additional studies for using the instrument to identify kids who may benefit from early intervention and to refine the First Year Inventory to improve the measure.