Parents are asked about a child’s eye-gaze and other forms of age-appropriate communication.
Parents can fill out a five-minute questionnaire that is accurate enough to diagnose autism in children as young as one in three-quarters of the cases, claims study.
Researchers said the checklist, which could be filled out in the waiting room of doctor’s office, could help catch the condition earlier and lead to more effective treatment.
Identifying Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) at an early age allows children to start treatment sooner, which can greatly improve their later development and learning.
However, many studies show a significant delay between the time parents first report concerns about their child’s behaviour and the eventual diagnosis, with some children not receiving treatment until well after they have started school.
The checklist asked parent; s about the child’s use of eye gaze, sounds, words, gestures, objects and other forms of age-appropriate communication.
Any child who failed the screen was referred for further testing and was re-evaluated every six months until age of three.
Dr Karen Pierce, of the University of California and colleagues, followed 10,479 infants screened at 137 GP surgeries for much of their childhood.
Out of the infants, 184 failed the initial screening and received further evaluation.
To date, 32 of these children have received a provisional or final diagnosis of ASD, 56 of language delay, nine of developments delay, and 36 “other” – totalling a positive predictive value of 75 per cent using the questionnaire.
“There is extensive evidence that early therapy can have a positive impact on the developing brain,” said Dr Pierce.
“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.”
The work was published in the journal of Paediatrics.