Questions about a child’s use of eye contact could help to identify early signs of autism, US experts have claimed.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine claim that routine questions for parents about their child’s eye contact, use of sound, words and gestures could flag up early signs of the condition. Usually, autism is only spotted later in a child’s development when the child starts to relate to other people.

More than 10,000 infants were looked at for the study. Of those, 184 failed the initial check-up and were referred for further valuation. Of those, 32 have had a final diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder and a further 101 have been found to have other conditions that involve developmental delay.

The authors of the report, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, say that the results represent what you would expect to find in a population of that size – which suggests the screening system could work.

Lead researcher Karen Pierce said: “Given lack of universal screening of infants for such disorders at 12 months, this programme could be adopted by any paediatric office, at virtually no cost, to aid in the identification of children with developmental delays. “Importantly, parents will be able to get help for their children at a much earlier age than before.”