Researchers with BC Children's Hospital and the University of British Columbia say two quick, low-cost questionnaires can help family doctors better identify developmental delays in children.

Parents can complete the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ) or the Parents’ Evaluation of Developmental Status (PEDS) at home or in the family physician’s office, with the physician scoring the tests and providing results in a matter of minutes.

"It really asks them, 'Do you have concerns about your child's development in a number of areas?' so that's not too difficult for most parents to answer anyway," said family doctor and study co-author Dr. David Joyce.

"And just asking those simple questions about concerns is better than asking none of those questions at all."

The questions identify problems in language, thinking or problem solving, adaptive functioning and motor skills.

"Right now, the majority of family physicians do the eyeball test," Joyce said.

"But research shows that is not very accurate, and kids are falling through the cracks. It’s critical to catch and treat disabilities early because the longer you leave them, the more intractable they become. The brain becomes more hard-wired, and opportunities for change become narrower."

Low-cost and accurate

Dr. Marjolaine Limbos, the study's principal investigator and a psychologist at BC Children's Hospital, agreed it's critical to identify development disabilities as early as possible.

"Only 30 per cent of children with developmental delays are identified prior to school age — whether that's social, physical or learning — and most experts would agree that we should be identifying those delays earlier through regular screening," she said.

Researchers looked at 334 children between one and five years of age recruited from family doctors in Ontario. Parents completed both questionnaires, and children underwent a full battery of psychologist testing to serve as a comparison.

The research indicated both tests were accurate in picking up abnormalities, though the PEDS had a slightly lower accuracy.

"Our research shows that overall, the ASQ and, to a lesser extent, the PEDS are accurate and can be administered effectively and at low cost," Limbos said.

"The study results will hopefully provide physicians with the confidence that the tests can be incorporated into a  busy physician practice with relatively little demand on staff time, with the results being easy to interpret and validate."

Children who are identified as having a developmental disability through the screening tests would then be referred to a specialist for further testing and treatment.