Autism: The Free Test that All Babies Should Get
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Autism: The Free Test that All Babies Should Get

Sean Locke/iStockphoto

Autism can be detected in children as young as 12 months old by using a simple, free test, according to a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics. It is the first test found to be effective to detect autism in very young children. The five-minute, 24-question questionnaire, designed to be administered by a pediatrician, assesses the social communication skills and symbolic behavior of the child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents screen their infants for autism at 18 to 24 months when symptoms typically become visible, but many children are not diagnosed until they are two or three years old. While there is no cure for autism, early intervention can increase the effectiveness of therapy. One hundred and thirty seven pediatricians completed the study and most said they were not systematically screening infants at for autism before they participated. After the study, they all reported that they have continued using the test in their pediatric offices.

"Given lack of universal screening of infants for such disorders at 12 months, this program could be adopted by any pediatric office, at virtually no cost, to aid in the identification of children with developmental delays," said Dr. Karen Pierce, who led the study. "Parents will be able to get help for their children at a much earlier age than before."

The test, called The One-Year Well Baby Check Up Approach, is a list of questions for parents, designed to help the pediatrician measure developmental progress. Among the questions:

  • Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?
  • Does your child pick up objects and give them to you?
  • Does your child use sounds or words to get attention or help?

Early screening can’t prevent autism, nor can a pediatrician diagnose autism with 100 percent accuracy in such young children. But the test is an important step in identifying kids who are at risk. Of the 10,500 children screened in the study, 184 failed the test.  After three years, 17 percent of those children were found to have autism; 55 percent were determined to have a language or developmental delay or a related condition.

The test could have big financial implications. Autism effects one out of every 110 children and one in 70 boys. An estimated 1.5 million Americans live with some form of the disorder, according to the Autism Awareness Association. It costs approximately $3.2 million to raise an autistic child over his or her lifetime, according to a 2007 Harvard School of Public Health study. Total direct and indirect medical costs add up to $35 billion a year total in the U.S. — and range from $72,000 a year for someone with an extreme case of autism to $67,000 for less severe cases.

The bulk of those expenditures come from paying for social services and special education, not medical costs, according to Dr. Susan Hyman, chair of the autism committee at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Earlier diagnosis could help reduce costs, but also improve outcomes. “We have to make insurers and physicians do developmental screening because it’s the right thing for society, not because it saves money in the short term,” According to Dr. Hyman.

The study was funded by the Organization for Autism Research, Autism Speaks (formerly Cure Autism Now), and the National Institute for Mental Health.

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