Detecting the Signs of Autism in Infants

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With the most recent figures suggesting that one in 116 children develop autism, and the public emphasis on early detection, many prospective parents wonder, “Are there signs of autism in infants?” As with many areas of early childhood development, there are several schools of thought on the subject that must be addressed when looking for early warning signs.

The Jean Piaget Philosophy

One of the most preeminent scholars on the subject of childhood development and the author that most psychologists turn to, Jean Piaget suggests that every child develops through a period of “autism” as the first step in intelligence. He wrote as early as the 1930’s that because intelligence in the infant is undirected and is sensorimotorological, it follows that this form of thought is by its nature autistic. This would suggest that the child “arrests” at this stage of development, creating what we know as autism. If one subscribes to this school of thought, seeking signs of autism in infants younger than 6 to 9 months old is pointless insofar the child is exhibiting normal behavior for his age.

The Leo Kanner Philosophy

Another idea came about in 1943 by another noted child psychologist, Leo Kanner. It was Kanner who delved fully into the idea of “early infantile autism”. He was a pioneer in the sense that he found autistic behavior an interesting study in human interaction. The greatest point of difference between the two scientists was that Kanner found a great degree in intelligence among the autistic children that he studied, albeit in a pervasively lonely, internal existence. As such, he challenged Piaget’s concept that autistic thought is a normal stage of infant development. This would lend credence to the search for signs of autism in infants as early as possible.

What to Do

So if two highly noted psychologists, upon which most of the science of mental development is based cannot agree, what can a parent do to help a potentially autistic child at the earliest point of intervention? There are two major things to do. First, watch and stay involved with your child. Most doctors agree that if you do not see signs of eye contact, appropriate smiling and laughing, or sensitive to colors and sensory stimulus by the time the child is 6 to 9 months old, there may be reason for concern. Further, if the child is exhibiting normal interactive behavior and then becomes suddenly withdrawn before he’s 2 years old, there may also be a reason for concern.

Second, it is important to maintain good contact and communication with the infant’s pediatrician for the first two years of their life. Most pediatricians are well versed on the signs of autism in infants because of the recent rise in the number of diagnoses. This is likely a parent’s greatest resource in the fight against autism. They will either allay your fears or work toward confirming a diagnosis and treatment. Either way, a good rapport with your baby’s doctor will allow a loving parent to help their infant.