An easy, five-minute checklist could help doctors identify autism in children as young as 12 months, offering kids an important head start on treatment, researchers said this week.

The screening, which asks parents about their child’s eye gaze, words, sounds and other forms of communication, accurately determined whether or not a child had autism in 75 percent of cases.

Today, most children with autism are not diagnosed until they are toddlers. The ability to flag kids at a younger age through a simple check at the pediatrician’s office allows them to begin treatment sooner and generally leads to better long-term outcomes, according to Karen Pierce of the University of California, San Diego who was the lead author on the study published this week in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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For the study, Pierce and her colleagues tested the screening method through a network of 137 pediatricians in the San Diego area. Out of 10,479 babies, 184 showed signs of autism during the test given at their one-year checkup and were referred for further screening. Ultimately, 32 were diagnosed with autism and several other children were found to have language, developmental or other delays.

“This program could be adopted by any pediatric office, at virtually no cost,” Pierce said. “Importantly, parents will be able to get help for their children at a much earlier age than before.”

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