Recognizing autism: early behavioral signs?

It’s the fastest growing developmental disability in the United States—and in the majority of cases, no one knows what causes it. According to the CDC, the prevalence is now one in 110 kids—an astounding 57 percent increase since 2002.

Despite the lack of concrete answers about autism, which is now seen as a spectrum of neurological disorders, characterized by deficits in social interaction, impaired language, and/or repetitive or restricted behavior, there is a consensus among clinicians that treatment should begin as early in life as possible. (Many experts suggest that there’s a crucial window of plasticity in the child’s developing brain when interventions are most effective.) That’s why getting a diagnosis as early as possible is important.

While children with autism are typically diagnosed around age 3 or 4, researchers have found that subtle symptoms can be detected much earlier in life, sometimes even before age 1. Now a new study affirms that the social disengagement that is typical of people with autism does appear in the second half of a baby’s first year of life. But, in a surprising twist, the study also found that parents usually don’t recognize the decline in their child’s behavior until well into his or her second year.

From the LA Times:

But while the reduced rates of face-gazing, vocalizations and social engagement were evident to researchers who systematically evaluated the babies every six months, 83 percent of the parents did not observe the changes chronicled by researchers — not, at least, in the first year they were happening.

At Children’s Hospital Boston, Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Children’s Hospital Boston, studies the brain development of babies, with hopes of discovering early indicators that could be used to identify autism in infants. He says it’s very tricky to rely on behavioral measures to identify autism in infants. “There’s a fine line between deciding if something is abnormal or just different,” says Nelson. Development varies enormously from one child to another, and many of the early signs of autism, like being fussy and difficult to feed, are exhibited in typically developing kids. Some of the telltale behavioral indicators of autism, like not responding to one’s name when called, aren’t applicable until age 1. “The behavioral repertoire of a young infant is limited,” says Nelson. “But that doesn’t mean things aren’t going on upstairs.”

By using imaging tools to look directly at the brain, Nelson hopes to find subtle indicators of autism long before the disorder manifests behaviorally. “The development of language can be witnessed in an infant’s brain long before it is expressed,” says Nelson.

Read about Nelson’s most recent study, which looks at infants with a sibling with autism.

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