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Checklist may spot signs of autism in babies

April 28, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
A simple checklist for parents may help doctors screen for signs of autism in babies.

With so much information about autism out there, it's easy for new parents to get anxious or nervous about any unusual behavior they might see in their infant or toddler.

When 2-year-old Wally Maston was a baby, his parents sensed something was not quite right.

"We had idea that there were definitely some sensory issues," said Wally's father, Brian Matson. "We didn't know if it was autism or where in the spectrum he might have been, but we knew there were definitely things."

Wally did not respond to his name and didn't talk as early as his siblings did when they were his age. Yet doctors kept telling the Mastons not to worry.

Now researchers have created a checklist to help parents like the Mastons screen for developmental delays that include autism.

"It's not diagnostic for autism. It only brings up general developmental concerns," said Dr. Douglas Vanderbilt, an expert in developmental behavioral pediatrics at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

San Diego researchers studied the effectiveness of this screening on more than 10,000 infants. One-hundred-eighty-four failed the screen. Of those, 32 were diagnosed with autism and 100 with some of sort of delay. Of the rest of the 184, 25 percent were false positives.

"We look at eye contact; we look at social referencing; we look at pointing; we look at how the child responds to their name," said Vanderbilt.

Many experts point out that the majority of infants who tested positive with this screening did not have autism. So that brings into question the usefulness of the test and whether it causes undue anxiety to parents.

Vanderbilt says any info is useful. "If it's not autism, it could be something that early intervention could help," he said.

Doctors eventually diagnosed Wally with autism. But an early screening test like this might have helped his parents get the information they needed even earlier.

The questionnaire is called the One-Year Well-Baby Check-Up Approach.

Researchers also surveyed pediatricians and found most were not systematically screening infants before this age.

And 96 percent of doctors who evaluated the checklist said it was a valuable tool.

The study is in Thursday's Journal of Pediatrics.