5 Minute Autism Screening

A new checklist developed by neuroscientists at the University of California, San Diego is giving pediatricians and parents an early opportunity to screen babies for autism spectrum disorders at the 1-year visit.

The checklist can be completed by parents in about five minutes, and will help doctors screen for signs of autism as early as a child’s first birthday.

Karen Pierce, PhD, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the UCSD School of Medicine, who developed the screen, hopes it will become the standard of care.

Some of the questions from the Autism Screening Checklist are:

Emotion and Eye Gaze

  • Do you know when your child is happy and when your child is upset?
  • When your child plays with toys, does he/she look at you to see if you are watching?
  • Does your child smile or laugh while looking at you?
  • When you look at and point to a toy across the room, does your child look at it?


  • Does your child let you know that he/she needs help or wants an object out of reach?
  • When you are not paying attention to your child, does he/she try to get your attention?
  • Does your child do things to get you to laugh?
  • Does your child try to get you to notice interesting objects — just to get you to look at the objects, not to get you to do anything with them?


  • Does your child pick up objects and give them to you?
  • Does your child show objects to you without giving you the object?
  • Does your child wave to greet people?
  • Does your child point to objects?
  • Does your child nod his/her head to indicate yes?


  • Does your child use sounds or words to get attention or help?
  • Does your child string sounds together, such as uh oh, mama, gaga, bye-bye, bada?
  • About how many of the following consonant sounds does your child use? Ma, na, ba, da, ga, wa, la, ya, sa, sha?


  • About how many words does your child use meaningfully that you recognize (such as baba for bottle; gaggie for doggie)?
  • Does your child put two words together (for example, more cookie, bye-bye Daddy)?


  • When you call your child’s name, does he/she respond by looking or coming toward you?
  • About how many different words or phrases does your child understand without gestures? For example, if you say, “Where’s your tummy,” “where’s Daddy,” “Give me the ball” or “Come here,” without showing or pointing, will your child respond appropriately?

Object Use

  • Does your child show interest in playing with a variety of objects?
  • About how many of the following objects does your child use appropriately: cup, bottle, bowl, spoon, comb or brush, toothbrush, washcloth, boy, toy vehicle, toy telephone?
  • About how many blocks (or rings) does your child stack?
  • Does your child pretend to play with toys (for example, feed a stuffed animal, put a doll to sleep, put an animal figure in a vehicle?

Dr. Pierce tested the checklist with 137 San Diego pediatricians who screened 10,479 infants. Pierce then evaluated 184 of those for autism, autism spectrum disorder, language delay, or other developmental delays. 75% of those were ultimately diagnosed with autism or another form of developmental delay.

She estimates that 1 in 4 abnormal results will be wrong (on further evaluation, those babies will be in the normal range), but adds that this is a relatively small price to pay for early diagnosis.

It is critical, Pierce says, that a doctor who uses the screen has access to a center where he can refer patients for more evaluation.

Geraldine Dawson, PhD, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization, says, “We do know that many babies who go on to develop autism begin to show symptoms early on. For babies who have this pattern of early onset, to use a screen that is quick and can be used in a pediatrician’s office efficiently is of great value. The earlier autism is detected, the earlier intervention can begin.”

WARNING from your Mamas: Do not try to apply this screening tool to your child at home. The questions above are incomplete. If you’re concerned about your child, see your family physician for evaluation.

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Ellen and Rachel are two old friends and “expert” mamas—one a pediatrician and one a family therapist—with fifty years of parenting experience between them.

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