"If a child fails the test at 12 months, they're highly likely to have some abnormal developmental outcome that could probably respond to therapy," says Dr. Sally Ozonoff, a professor at the University of California, Davis' M.I.N.D. institute.
Believing there may be a genetic link, researchers tested babies whose siblings had autism. They would call the baby's name once, wait three seconds, then do it again.
The UC Davis study found that 70 percent of the children later diagnosed with autism had failed the test sometime between 12 and 18 months of age.
According to Alison Singer, Senior Vice President of Autism Speaks and mother of an autistic child, "Parents need to be just as aware of the developmental milestones as they are of the physical milestones." If a child does not respond to his or her name, "express concern and ask [your doctor] for a full developmental screening," says Singer. For more information on the group Autism Speaks, visit www.autismspeaks.org.
Looking back, Liz and Peter Bell remembered this behavior in their son Tyler and wish they'd known what it meant. Tyler, now 14, was diagnosed only after his parents pushed doctors to pay attention.
"At his second year well-check, where we started to express concerns with pediatrician," Peter Bell says, "it took a year to get a definitive diagnosis."
The hope is that pediatricians now will incorporate this test into regular check-ups. Earlier detection means earlier treatment.
"Sometimes you wonder what would have happened if we had started at 2, when we first had initial concerns," Peter says.
Right now, most treatment for autism is geared for children. The UC Davis researchers are testing therapies for babies as young as 12 months old.