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12-point questionnaire aids GPs to screen for autism

A new 12-point questionnaire could allow GPs to screen children with behavioural problems for autism, researchers claim.

Their study, published in December's British Journal of Psychiatry, assessed the reliability and validity of the questionnaire in three groups of children from separate clinics. They concluded the Social and Communication Disorders Checklist was 'a unique and efficient first-level screening questionnaire for autistic traits'.

Autistic children averaged 16.6 on the questionnaire, reproduced below, compared with 2.9 for community controls. Using a cut-off of nine, it had a sensitivity of 90 per cent and a specificity of 69 per cent ­ good enough, according to the researchers, to play a role in general practice.

Study leader Professor David Skuse, professor of behavioural and brain sciences at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, said: 'It's not a diagnostic tool but as a way of identifying a child who is at risk it would be a reasonable adjunct to clinical practice. GPs are underdiagnosing this condition ­ they think it's rarer than it is.'

He said the checklist could provide a quick and easy way of assessing whether a child needed referral to a specialist for formal diagnosis.

But Dr Mike Fitzpatrick, a GP in Hackney, east London, who has an autistic child himself, doubted whether underdiagnosis was any longer a major problem.

Autism checklist

· Not aware of other people's feelings

· Does not realise when others are upset or angry

· Does not notice the effect of his/her behaviour on other members of the family

· Behaviour often disrupts family life

· Very demanding of other people's time

· Difficult to reason with when upset

· Does not seem to understand social skills, eg persistently interrupts conversations

· Does not pick up on body language

· Does not appear to understand how to behave when out (eg in shops, or other people's homes)

· Does not realise if s/he offends people with her/his behaviour

· Does not respond when told to do something

· Cannot follow a command unless it is carefully worded

Not true = 0; Quite or sometimes true = 1; Very often or often true = 2

Suspect autism at 9 points or greater

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