Researchers Find First Signs of Autism Even in Infancy

TIME

Health and Science
May 4, 2009

Show the average 14-month-old baby a sealed jar of cookies, and you get some pretty predictable behavior. The child will reach for the treats and, when thwarted, look beseechingly at the nearest adult. The request for help — delivered with eye contact, gestures and often with pleading sounds — is unmistakable. But some babies don’t do it. One little boy, captured on video by psychologist Wendy Stone at Vanderbilt University, repeatedly places a researcher’s hand on the cookie jar but never once looks at her face to see why she isn’t responding. Eventually, tragically, he gives up.

Show the average 18-month-old a video of toddlers at play, and you can bet that the tot will be mesmerized by scenes with strong emotion: a fight or kiss. But some babies have other interests. At the Yale Child Study Center, psychologists Warren Jones, Ami Klin and Sarah Shultz measure when toddlers stop blinking — a reliable indicator of rapt attention. The typical child will stare at the scene of a kiss, but a child with autism will be transfixed by the opening and closing of a door.

Experiments like these, presented at a recent conference at Columbia University’s Teachers College, are helping researchers identify the signs of autism at ever earlier ages. For parents, says Stone, director of Vanderbilt’s Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, “the average age of first concern is 17 months, though a diagnosis isn’t typically made until age 3. That’s a long time to be concerned and not know what to do.”

In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that doctors begin screening babies for autism at 18 months, but researchers have yet to refine the tools for making a reliable diagnosis at that age. One issue, says Catherine Lord, director of the University of Michigan Autism & Communication Disorders Center, is that there is so much individual variability in how babies develop. Another challenge is that many of the signature signs of autism — delayed speech, repetitive movements or fixations on particular toys or objects — involve language and motor skills that babies have not yet acquired. That’s why identifying the signs of autism before age 2 often involves the absence of typical behavior as opposed to the presence of aberrations.

Among the telltale signs of trouble at 12 months: not responding to one’s name; not sharing interests through pointing and eye gaze; lack of joyful expression; an absence of babbling; difficulty establishing eye contact; and staring too long at inanimate objects (see FirstSigns.org for more early-warning signs). Investigators have identified these red-flag signs of autism by looking at early home videos of children who were diagnosed at age 3 or later and by studying the younger siblings of children with autism, who have relatively high rates — perhaps 15% — of the disorder. But no single behavior is indicative, and researchers believe that rather than being given a definitive diagnosis, tots with several of these behaviors should be identified as “at risk” and referred to early-intervention programs.

Research strongly suggests that early intervention is key to improving outcomes for at-risk children. And by identifying these children at younger ages, scientists can better determine which aspects of autism are hardwired and which are the secondary results of living with the disability. There is also growing support in the autism-research community for the view that a significant number of children who are at risk could be protected from becoming fully autistic if they are assisted early enough and given the optimal intervention.

“The environment in the early years has an active role in shaping the brain,” says Geraldine Dawson, a leading autism researcher and the chief scientific officer of the advocacy group Autism Speaks. “What we see in autism may be partly the result of not engaging with the social environment. So if you engage the baby through an intervention, you might prevent or at least reduce the development of autism symptoms.” (See more about autism.)

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Comment from Leslie

Vaccine related autism?  Or and this also be the result of heavy metal poisoning being passed from the parent’s bodies down to their newborns?

PG

Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.