Revolutionary Test for Early Detection of Autism

Researchers at Cambridge University have found a relatively easy and early way to detect autism. Dr. Greene explains this screening tool.

Researchers at Cambridge University have found a relatively easy and early way to detect autism. Although autism has its subtle beginnings during infancy, the diagnosis is rarely made before three years of age (and usually autism is discovered even later than that). Since treatment is more effective the earlier it is begun, the possibility of early detection is truly exciting.

1Three hallmark behaviors were the focus of their investigation:

  1. Protodeclarative pointing — by fourteen months of age a normal infant will point at an object in order to get another person to look at that object.
  2. Gaze-monitoring — by fourteen months an infant will often turn to look in the same direction an adult is looking.
  3. Pretend play — by fourteen months children will begin to play using object substitution,.e.g. pretending to make tea and drink it out of a toy cup.

All three behaviors are typically absent in school-age children with autism.

Cambridge researchers looked at sixteen thousand children in the southeast of England during routine eighteen month well-child examinations. They checked to see if the children had evidenced each of these three key behaviors. Only twelve children out of the sixteen thousand consistently failed in all three key areas at their eighteen month check ups. Ten out of these twelve later proved to have autism. Of twenty-two additional children who failed in either one or two of the behaviors, none turned out to have autism, but 68% did later have a speech delay.

This powerful screening test is remarkably simple, painless, and cost-effective. It promises to revolutionize the lives of the next generation of children with autism. If your child isn’t exhibiting these behaviors by 18 months of age, bring this to your pediatrician’s attention.

Update: The 1996 Cambridge study was a revolutionary milestone in autism research. While modified versions of the screening test have been developed, the absence of protodeclarative pointing, gaze-monitoring, and pretend play by 18 months continues to serve as a powerful screening tool.

Footnote References:
1Baron-Cohen et al. British Journal of Psychiatry, 168:158-163, 1996)
Last medical review on: November 07, 2008
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
Get Dr. Greene's Wellness RecommendationsSignup now to get Dr. Greene's healing philosophy, insight into medical trends, parenting tips, seasonal highlights, and health news delivered to your inbox every month.
Add your comment

Recent Comments

Hi I have a 2 year old and from about 15 weeks old up to now he beats his head when he is trying to go to sleep while he is asleep and even just here and there threw the day he screams alot he dont like to be touch and i have notices his pain tolerance is very high like nothing hurts him