Early Signs of Autism

Autism is a disorder that affects the brain’s natural development of communication and social skills. Although autism has no cure, diagnosing autism early on and helping a young child with autism develop specific skills can improve his chances of thriving in society.

Most children are diagnosed with autism before age 3, but some children are diagnosed as young as 18 months of age and others aren’t diagnosed until they are 4 years of age, according to pediatric health website KidsHealth from Nemours.

You should never assume that your child has autism without getting a formal diagnosis, but you may be able to identify certain behavioral indicators of autism in your child as early on as his first few months of life.

Red Flags in Toddlers and Preschoolers

Many signs of autism become apparent once a child is old enough to talk, express empathy or play with others. For example, many children with autism don’t speak until sometime after age 2, and about 25 to 30 percent of children with autism have some words at about 12 to 18 months of age but then lose them, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If your doctor suspects that your toddler or preschooler has autism, he will typically look for signs to indicate your child hasn’t met certain milestones, or he will try to find signs that your child has lost previously acquired social or language skills. Your doctor may suggest that your child undergo further testing if your child doesn’t coo, babble, turn in response to her name, or use gestures such as pointing and waving by the time she is 12 months old.

Your doctor may also recommend further testing if your child doesn’t speak in single words by the time she is 16 months old or speak in two-word phrases by the time she is 24 months old. Other telltale signs of autism, such as repetitive movements and fixations on certain objects or toys, may also start to appear in your child’s toddler years.

Red Flags in Infants

Young babies don’t talk, but once they are a few months old they do communicate and socialize with eye contact, facial expressions, physical gestures, and eventually babbling. Although your pediatrician likely won’t make a formal diagnosis until your child shows clear signs of autism in toddlerhood, you may be able to identify potential warning signs of autism by observing your baby’s behavior as he develops.

The earlier you spot these signs and discuss your concerns to your pediatrician’s attention, the more likely your pediatrician will be to look for certain traits in your child and the sooner you will be able to intervene if your child does have autism.

Talk to your pediatrician about your observations if you notice that your baby:

  • doesn’t make frequent eye contact by about 2 to 3 months;
  • smile at you or your voice by about 3 months;
  • laugh or express joy in other ways by about 6 months;
  • follow your gaze when you look in another direction;
  • babble by about 9 months.

Recent Research

Children who are diagnosed with autism may exhibit signs in infancy that are difficult to detect in day-to-day interactions. For example, in a January 2012 issue of “Current Biology,” researchers examined the brain activity of 104 babies on two different occasions: once when the babies were 6 to 10 months old and another time when the children were 3 years old.

According to researchers, babies who were later diagnosed with autism were more likely to show little brain activity in response to a person making eye contact and then looking away, whereas the brains of children who were eventually found to be typically developing had a clearer response.

In another study, published in the September 2010 issue of “Pediatrics,” researchers examined the behaviors and development of 28 babies who were later diagnosed with autism and compared them with the same traits of babies who were not eventually diagnosed with autism.

After testing babies’ development and behavior at 1 month of age, 4 months of age, and from intermittently until about age 2, babies who were later diagnosed with autism were more likely to:

  • prefer more visual stimulation
  • visually track objects differently
  • have abnormal arm tone
  • than babies who weren’t later diagnosed with autism.

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