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Autism Signs Not Apparent in First Year

< Oct. 31, 2012 > -- Infants who go on to develop autism by age 3 are remarkably similar to babies without autism in the first few months of life, a new study says.

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are developmental disabilities that make it difficult for a child to interact socially and communicate with others, the CDC says. ASDs are usually diagnosed by the time a child turns 3. They affect about one in 88 U.S. children.

Photo of mother holding and kissing infant

But the new study, by researchers at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, found that symptoms of autism aren't apparent before at least 1 year of age.

"We always thought that if a child had autism, we would be able to tell during infancy, . . . but we were wrong," says study author Rebecca Landa, Ph.D. "At 6 months of age, babies who end up with autism by age 3 are scoring similarly on tests to children who didn't have autism."

The researchers followed 204 infants who had a sibling with ASD and 31 other infants with no family history. ASDs tend to run in families, so the sibling of a child with ASD is at increased risk of developing the disorder, too. The researchers examined the infants at ages 6, 14, 24, 30, and 36 months of age.

Range of tests

Among the skills tested were fine motor skills, speaking skills, understanding of spoken language, and how often the children shared emotions and started communicating with others.

Based on their assessments, the researchers divided the children into three groups: those who were diagnosed at 14 months, those whose symptoms didn't appear until later in the study period, and those who did not develop ASD.

Little difference

They found that all infants in the study met similar developmental milestones at 6 months. But by 14 months, both ASD groups had parted from the non-ASD children in some aspect of development.

And although conventional wisdom has held that children who showed early signs of ASD might go on to develop more severe disabilities, that wasn't the case. By age 3, the early and late ASD groups had no discernible differences in disabilities.

Watching for signs

Dr. Landa, who has done extensive research on autism, says "it's never too early" for pediatricians and parents to be alert to potential signs of autism in infants. These signs don't always center on language and social delays, she says.

For example, some babies who go on to develop autism exhibit poor "postural control" at 4 months and can't control their neck muscles when pulled up to a sitting position.

"We really should be screening for general developmental delays at the first birthday," Dr. Landa says. "We shouldn't lock ourselves into screening for autism specifically . . . what we want to do now is help parents and pediatricians start looking for some of these more qualitative markers."/p>

The study was published this week in the journal Child Development.

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Breaking Through the Barriers of Autism

Although autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has no cure, there is hope through treatment. Many children are able to learn to communicate and interact. Doctors and mental health experts have learned a lot about how to interact with these children.

Here are some things we know about children with an ASD:

  • They may not be able to read your nonverbal communications. They may not react to your smile or frown.

  • They take things literally. You need to be careful to say exactly what you mean. If you hurry the child by saying "Step on it!," don't be surprised if he or she asks what to step on.

  • They may only be able to grasp one thought or idea at a time. You need to keep conversations focused and simple.

  • They may want to talk about only the one thing they are really interested in at a given time. This is true especially for the child with Asperger syndrome.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Online Resources

(Our Organization is not responsible for the content of Internet sites.)

American Academy of Pediatrics - What Is Autism?

CDC - Autism Spectrum Disorders

Kennedy Krieger Institute - Distinct developmental patterns identified in children with autism