Early Signs of Autism in Infants: Identifying the Disorder in Younger Children

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The Effects of Autism

Autism is a neurological and developmental disability that affects an individual’s behavior and ability to form social relationships. Children and adults who have this disorder appear to live in their own world, avoid eye contact, have trouble communicating, and have difficulties forming attachments to others. Autism may cause people to display unusual and repetitive behaviors and show preoccupations with certain objects and subjects.

A spectrum disorder, autism can range from mild to severe. Children with severe autism, or autistic disorder, have significant language delays, social and communication challenges, and unusual behaviors and interests. Many with autistic disorder also have intellectual disability. Individuals with Asperger Syndrome usually have milder symptoms of autistic disorder. People with Pervasive Developmental Disorder –Not Otherwise Specified usually have fewer and milder symptoms than those with autistic disorder.

Early Signs of Autism in Infants

Autism is usually diagnosed when a child is between two and three years old. In some studies, researchers have recognized early signs of autism in infants around six months of age. These studies, however, have concentrated on the younger siblings of children already diagnosed with the disorder. A younger sibling of a child with autism is 50 times more likely to be diagnosed with the disorder than a child without any affected siblings, according to the National Alliance for Autism Research (Source: WebMD.com).

In observations of more than 200 younger siblings of children with autism, researchers noticed a lack of frequent eye contact and a lack of smiles in response to other’s smiles. Researchers also observed early signs of autism in infants as young as six months old that included passivity and lower levels of activity and social interaction, followed by extreme irritability, a fixation on objects, and lack of facial expressions. These children were more likely to receive a diagnosis of autism than children who met developmental milestones. As this group of children reached their first birthday, they were more likely to have problems with language and communication, and less likely to use gestures.

Researchers do warn that it is really impossible to diagnose autism in infants younger than 18 months. While it is important to track a child’s growth and developmental milestones, parents and caregivers must remember that all infants and children develop at an individual pace. If an infant does not reach a certain milestone at a specific age, this does not mean the child has autism or any other disorder. Some milestones to watch for in an infant to make sure development is occurring at the right pace include:

  • Lack of smiles or other joyful expressions by 6 months
  • Lack of response to name by 7 months
  • Lack of back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles, or other facial expressions by 9 months
  • No babbling by 12 months
  • Does not point, reach, wave, or make back-and-forth gestures by 12 months
  • No words by 16 months
  • Lack of coordination of nonverbal communication
  • Loss of babbling or communication at any age

If parents or caregivers are concerned about a child not reaching these milestones, they should consult their pediatrician. Even if doctors are unable to diagnose autism in children as young as infants, early diagnosis and intervention is essential for a child’s best possible future. Early intervention includes behavioral training and management, physical, occupational, and speech therapy, and certain medications.