Autism awareness campaigns have done their job, and one of the first questions I hear from parents who have a child demonstrating delays is: Could he have autism? Parents know that autism is a much more common diagnosis today than it was in the past and that kids are being diagnosed early.
Just how early? Some local districts in my state do a comprehensive evaluation (including a school psychologist, speech pathologist, and social worker as part of the team) as early as 18 months, qualifying children for special education services under autism spectrum disorder. A pediatric neurologist is opening up an autism clinic in my town, welcoming kids as young as newborn. I have a new referral on my desk right now from a pediatrician who says the child is exhibiting signs of autism. The baby is eight months old.
Research such as a recent study out of Yale School of Medicine is helping providers pinpoint behavior in infants that may predict autism. In that particular study, researchers found that high-risk babies who went on to later be diagnosed with autism were less likely to be attentive to social activities and faces than their low-risk peers, when shown a video at six months old.
One of the key characteristics of autism spectrum disorder is a delay in what we call joint attention. Joint attention happens when your infant follows your eye gaze or gesture to pay attention to something you want them to see, or likewise looks or points at something she wants you to see. Some examples of joint attention include:
A truck backfires outside and your baby looks toward the noise then back at you to see your reaction.
Your baby drops her spoon on the floor, then looks at you to see if you're going to pick it up (so she can drop it again).
Your toddler sees a plane flying overhead and points to it so that you will notice it too.
Without joint attention new social skills, language, and imitation do not come easily to babies and toddlers.
Other early signs of autism include:
doesn't return your smile during social games like Pat-a-cake and Peek-a-boo
doesn't respond to household social activity like watching an adult walk across a room or looking toward a new noise.
doesn't look when you call his/her name
doesn't reach to be picked up
doesn't point things out to you
doesn't look toward something you are pointing out
doesn't wave goodbye
doesn't babble or cry to get your attention
doesn't imitate facial movements, gestures, or sounds
Only an evaluation team can diagnose autism, but if your child is not hitting his milestones at a typical rate or is exhibiting some of these signs, please talk to your doctor or local intervention agency. The bright side of identifying children with autism spectrum disorder so early is that intervention is available to support both child and parent.