Genetic testing for autism is one step closer to reality, researchers say, a development which may open the door for earlier diagnosis.

In a study published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, Australian researchers report that they’ve developed a genetic test that can predict autism with more than 70 percent accuracy among people of central European descent. Further testing in other ethnic groups is ongoing.

The test is based on data from more than 3,300 Americans with autism and over 4,000 of their relatives. Researchers identified hundreds of genetic markers that are associated with an autism diagnosis or are known to protect people from developing the disorder. They then compared the number of risk markers versus protective markers present in an individual to assess their likelihood of having autism.

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“This test could assist in the early detection of the condition in babies and children and help in the early management of those who become diagnosed,” said Stan Skafidas of the University of Melbourne who led the study. “It would be particularly relevant for families who have a history of autism or related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome.”

Scientists said the promising findings may lead to earlier autism diagnosis and intervention, which could reduce the disorder’s long-term behavioral and cognitive effects.

Currently, autism diagnosis is based on clinical observation alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for the developmental disorder at 18 months, but a National Institute of Mental Health survey released earlier this year found that most kids are not diagnosed until after age 5.