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Online Tool Could Diagnose Autism Quickly, Developers Say

TUESDAY, April 10 (HealthDay News) -- A new online procedure could cut from hours to minutes the amount of time it takes to accurately diagnose autism in young children, resulting in earlier treatment, a new report by Harvard Medical School researchers says.

The process relies on seven questions plus a short home video of an individual child.

The research team said its method could reduce by nearly 95 percent the time it takes to diagnose autism and could be easily included in routine child screening practices, greatly increasing the number of at-risk children who get checked for the disorder.

"We believe this approach will make it possible for more children to be accurately diagnosed during the early critical period when behavioral therapies are most effective," Dennis Wall, an associate professor of pathology and director of computational biology initiative at the Center for Biomedical Informatics, said in a medical school news release.

The research is published in the April 10 online edition of the journal Nature Translational Psychiatry.

Currently, children being evaluated for autism typically take a 93-part questionnaire and/or an examination that assesses several types of behaviors. These evaluations must be performed by a trained clinician and can take up to three hours to complete.

In many cases, there is a delay of more than a year between initial signs of autism and a diagnosis. This is due to waiting times to see a professional who can administer the tests and deliver the formal diagnosis, Wall explained.

He and his colleagues examined data from more than 800 people who were diagnosed with autism and found that only seven questions were needed to diagnose autism with nearly 100 percent accuracy.

The researchers also found that a shorter assessment of behavioral traits could be used to evaluate children, and this could be achieved by viewing short home video clips of children.

"With this mobilized approach, the parent or caregiver will be able to take the crucial first steps to diagnosis and treatment from the comfort of their own home, and in just a few minutes," Wall said.

One expert said that such a test would be useful, but more research into its effectiveness is needed.

"Although the accuracy and specificity of the abbreviated approach are impressive, it is likely that this abbreviated approach to testing may not be quite as accurate and discriminating when evaluating a more diverse sample than was included in the study just reported," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

"At this time, concerned parents are advised to discuss concerns about their child's development with their pediatrician. Children under 3 years of age are entitled to a free developmental evaluation through their local early intervention program. Likewise, preschool children (ages 3 to 5) can be evaluated for free through their local school district," he added.

"Pediatricians and pediatric sub-specialists are generally able to make a clinical diagnosis of autism using current diagnostic criteria," Adesman said, and "families wishing a second opinion about a child with possible autism may wish to consult with a developmental pediatrician, child neurologist or child psychiatrist."

More information

Here's where you can find the seven-question survey.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCES: Andrew Adesman, M.D., chief, developmental and behavioral pediatrics, Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Harvard Medical School, news release, April 10, 2012

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