New Ways of Diagnosing Autism in Infancy

by Brian M. Williams

Diagnosing Autism EarlyExperts have had a difficult time diagnosing an autism spectrum disorder in infancy, when treatment could make the biggest difference.

Now, diagnostic tests can detect at-risk babies as early as 6 months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about 1 in 110 children have autism or an autism-like disorder. If an older sibling has been diagnosed with autism, the risk increases to 1 in 5.

Symptoms typically begin between 18 months and 3 years of age but autism often isn't discovered until age 5. Children diagnosed at this age miss opportunities to get therapy during the time their brains are growing and most easily shaped.

Looking at Behavior for Autism Clues

During the first three years, your baby's brain is forming connections that can last for life. Throughout this window, you can step in and affect how the brain is wired.

A checklist released by the Journal of Pediatrics asks parents or caregivers about their child's communication skills, from babbling and first words to eye contact. It only takes about five minutes to complete. This early screening test could help detect autism earlier in autistic children and get them started on treatment earlier than usual.

A number of red-flag behaviors indicate your child might be at risk of developing autism. Some of these you can spot as early as 3 months.

Social interaction:
• Your baby does not respond to your voice
• Your baby does not smile at you
• Your baby does not make eye contact
• Your baby shoves away or pulls back when held
• Your baby or toddler prefers to play alone instead of play around other children

• You baby does not babble or make typical baby noises
• Your baby does not repeat sounds
• Your baby always seems irritable and fussy

• Your baby sleeps a lot for their age
• Your baby seems subdued
• Your baby seems stiff or floppy
• Your baby is obsessed with some objects
• Your baby is overwhelmed by specific noises
• Your baby hates being on their stomach

Your instinct:
• You feel like something is wrong

These behaviors don't necessarily indicate an autism diagnosis, but they do give you and your doctor a better way to recognize and get a head start on early intervention if an autism diagnosis does emerge.

Do You See What I See?

As your baby approaches that first birthday, you might notice a new way of communication. Babies will look at something, look at you and look again at that intriguing object. Every now and then, they'll check back that you're still paying attention.

Babies who develop autism often skip this important stage in learning to communicate.

Look Here!

When older children and adults with autism look at a picture, they don't appear to pay the same degree of attention to people as they do to the objects and things in the background.

Which side of an adult's face does your baby focus on. Human brains are wired to look to the right. Studies have shown adults with autism don't favor a side.

Dr. Mark S. Strauss from the University of Pittsburg is using infra-red cameras to pinpoint where a baby gazes when shown a picture. This information can help diagnose autism early.

Listening Can Diagnosis Autism

Jill Gilkerson, researcher at LENA Research Foundation is using children's voice patterns to help identify kids who may be at risk for autism.

Parents place a recording device inside the front pocket of the child's clothing. It tracks everything the child says -- whether words, noises or simply grunts -- and everything spoken around them.

Once the recorder is returned to the lab, speech recognition technology looks for patterns such as unusual pitch or rhythm that might indicate a child has autism.

Looking Inside the Brain

In two separate projects in 2012, researches have noted specific patterns or brain responses in babies who were later diagnosed with autism.

Scientists at the University of North Carolina used brain imaging studies to look at the brains of babies at high-risk to develop autism at 6 months. Thirty percent of the babies were diagnosed with autism by the time they were 24 months old. These babies' images showed specific patterns in the organization of their brain's white matter.

Some babies who showed the autism-linked brain pattern did not go on to develop the disorder. The researchers say they hope the study will also help to identify ways to prevent infants at risk of developing autism.

Researchers like Mayada Elsabbagh, assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal says that developing and testing early behavioral interventions is an exciting direction. She says that we can start to answer the question of whether we can change early risk factors.

Medical References:
-- CDC: Autism Spectrum Disorders. Updated May 13, 2010. Accessed March 25, 2012.
-- Elsabbagh M. et al., (2012) "Infant Neural Sensitivity to Dynamic eye Gaze is Associated with Later Emerging Autism." Current Biology 2012 Feb 21;22 (4):338-342. Accessed March 21, 2012.
-- Wolff, J. et al., (February 17, 2012) "Differences in White Matter Fiber Tract Development Present From 6 to 24 Months in Infants With Autism." American Journal of Psychiatry 2012. Accessed March 24, 2012.
-- Olswang, R. et al. (June 2011) Prelinguistic Intentional Communication: Sending a Clear Message With Eyes, Hands, and Voice). Accessed March 26, 2012.