UNC questionnaire able to identify children at-risk of autism in first year of life!

I was quite excited today when I read Catherine Pearson’s article in the Huffington Post’s about a group of researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who developed and tested a questionnaire that can, apparently, pinpoint with some accuracy children at-risk of an autism spectrum disorder as early as their first birthday.

As Pearson suggests in her lead paragraph about the research, such early knowledge is crucial for early intervention programs. And, let’s face it, there is already plenty of evidence that the earlier the intervention the better!

Essentially then, the UNC study is about a 63-item questionnaire that some 699 parents completed at the time their child was one year of age. Assuming the 699 parents were referring to an equal number of children (as opposed to twins), 31% of the affected children that were shown to be at risk of an autism diagnosis at age one had that fact confirmed at aged three.

Similarly, 85% of the children that were shown to be at-risk for an autism diagnosis at age one had some type of developmental disability identified by age three. Meaning, that the majority of children who showed at-risk behaviours in the first year of their lives were in fact at-risk and in line for some type of early intervention programming.

Yes, as Pearson points out in her article, there are professionals who feel that the results of this and other questionnaires are only indicators, not a diagnosis. Plus, there are those who worry about false positives and false negatives. But as both a former professional in a similar field of research and a parent of a child (now an adult) with an autism spectrum disorder (PDD-NOS), some indicators at aged one are certainly better than none.

The lead author of the UNC study is Lauren Turner-Brown while the rest of the team (who actually developed the questionnaire) are identified as Grace Baranek, Linda Watson, Elizabeth Crais and J. Steven Reznick from PEARLS (the Program for Early Autism, Research, Leadership and Services, also at UNC).

Without a doubt, good stuff!


(1) I have e-mailed the UNC team’s media contact for more details on the questionnaire as I would like to take a look at the 63 questions and see if any of them could have identified the behaviours my son exhibited in the first year of his life (back in 1965/66).  If it can, it would simply be further proof that both foresight and hindsight validates the questionnaire.

(2) I worry about potential Catch 22 situations.  An autism spectrum disorder is very difficult to pin down until a child is at least three years of age. Which means, if parents cannot access early intervention programs until a formal diagnosis, they cannot access help for their child when he or she is between the ages of one and three.  Which is why a questionnaire like the UNC one is so exciting — if it could be used as a pre-diagnosis validation in order to access ABA?