The first highly accurate tool for detecting autism in babies has been developed by scientists. Researchers say the new screening mechanism, which is already in use in 11 countries, is now the world’s most effective.
Incredibly, the screening tool detects autism more than three years before traditional tests. As a result, therapies can be deployed earlier and should help autistic children integrate with their non-autistic peers.
The breakthrough tool, called the SACS-R, was developed at La Trobe University In Melbourne, Australia and took 15 years to create. It is used to identify a set of behaviors which are common among children on the spectrum from as young as 11 months old.
Such behaviors include infrequent or inconsistent use of gestures such as waving and pointing at objects, eye contact, copying other people’s activities, responding to their name being called, sharing interest with others and pretend play.
SACS-R has been rolled out across the Australian states of Victoria and Tasmania, and will soon be used in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. Medics in China, Singapore, Poland, Japan, New Zealand, Nepal and Bangladesh among other countries have also been trained in using the tool.
A study of more than 13,500 Australian children found that SACS-R was extremely good at working out which very young kids were on the autistic spectrum. Of the one to two-year-old tots flagged by the tool, 83 percent were later diagnosed with autism.
When it was used alongside a SACS preschool health check, it was 96 percent effective at diagnosing children with autism by the time they were three-and-a-half. The researchers say most autistic youngsters are not diagnosed with the condition until they are four or five, which means opportunities to support them when they are younger get missed.
Every child in the Australian state of Victoria is already checked with the tool when they are one, 18 months, and two years old. It can be used when a child is three-and-a-half, but funding for that is currently not available in the state.
Early diagnosis of autism is crucial because it means children can access specialist services, support and therapy earlier. It helps the children’s development, increases participation in mainstream schools and means less support is needed as children grow older.
However, the accuracy of other tools used to diagnose the condition in other parts of the world is very limited. That includes the well-known M-CHAT, which is just six percent accurate when used in the community.
“Parents are often told to ‘wait and see’ when raising concerns about their child’s development,” says Associate Professor Josephine Barbaro, who developed the tool, in a statement to South West News Service. “This means the average age of diagnosis is around four to five, and opportunities for early supports have been missed. Putting this extremely effective tool in the hands of a trained primary health professional, so that during their routine health checks they are also screening for autism, makes a huge difference to early diagnosis.
“Not only is SACS-R the world’s most effective screening tool, unlike many it can be used within the community on large populations,” he continues, “enabling early identification of very young children across the board.”
Professor John Dewar, vice-chancellor of La Trobe University, believes that the success of SACS-R will lead to more countries using it around the world. “The screening tool is an excellent example of high-impact research that can make a tangible difference to people’s lives,” he says. “Early autism identification using this tool has already changed the lives of thousands of children and their families around the world.”
The findings are published in the journal JAMA Network Open.
Article by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright