A five-minute screening test could help detect autism in babies at 12 months of age, giving parents and doctors far more time to intervene, US researchers revealed last night.
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 programme at the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study.
"The benefit of this study is children get into treatment much earlier than they would otherwise," said Karen Pierce of the University of California, San Diego, whose study appears in the 'Journal of Pediatrics'.
Autism, a complex and mysterious brain disorder, strikes one in 110 children in the United States and affects four times as many boys as girls.
The disorder is characterised 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 three, and recent studies have shown that the earlier that children are diagnosed and treated, the better they do.
"There is extensive evidence that early therapy can have a positive impact on the developing brain," Ms Pierce said.
For the study, Ms Pierce and colleagues put together a network of 137 paediatricians in the San Diego area, who systematically started screening all babies at their one-year check up.
Any baby who failed the screening was referred to the 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.
After the screening programme, all toddlers diagnosed with autism or developmental delay, were referred for behavioural therapy around the age 17 months.
"Those kids were getting treatment who otherwise may not have been seen for treatment until age three or later," Dr Gilotty said.
Dr Gilotty said the screening test still needs to be confirmed through other studies.