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An early screening test for autism, designed to detect signs of the condition in babies as young as 1 year old, could revolutionize the care of autistic children, experts say, by getting them diagnosed and treated years earlier than usual.

The 24-item checklist takes just five minutes to complete and can be filled out in a pediatrician’s waiting room, when parents bring children for their routine 12-month checkup, says a study of more than 10,000 infants, published today in the Journal of Pediatrics.

The checklist — available online now — asks parents or other caregivers about their child’s communication skills, from babbling and first words to eye contact. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The average total ASD prevalence in 2006 (children born in 1998) was 9.0 per 1,000 children, which translates to one in 110 children. All ten communities participating in both the earlier 2002 and 2006 study years observed an increase in identified ASD prevalence ranging from 27 percent to 95 percent, with an average increase of 57 percent.  No single factor explains the changes in identified ASD prevalence over the time period studied.  Although some of the increases are due to better detection, a true increase in risk cannot be ruled out. Increases were found among boys in nine communities and among girls in four communities.  ASD prevalence was 4 to 5 times higher for boys than for girls. These estimates report that one in 70 boys and one in 315 girls have an ASD. The average increase for boys was 60% while the average increase for girls was 48%.

Data show a similar proportion of children with an ASD also had signs of intellectual disability than in the past, averaging 44% in 2004 and 41% in 2006.  Concerns regarding development before the age of 24 months were noted in the evaluation records of most children, but the average age of earliest ASD diagnosis was much later at 54 months.

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