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Research to Real World: Are We Aware of Autism in Babies?

Looking for early indicators of a potential diagnosis

April 2014

April is Autism Awareness Month. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs), which affect approximately 1 in every 150 individuals, can have a range of symptoms, including impairments in social interaction, communication issues and repetitive, inflexible behavior. ASDs are lifelong disorders, believed to be congenital, or present at birth, and are highly heritable.

It seems like most people these days are at least aware of autism, thanks to celebrity "experts" such as Jenny McCarthy or remarkable individuals like Temple Grandin who have opened up about their own autism.

However, most people might not be aware of many details about autism, such as the difficulty of diagnosing young infants and children with ASDs. Parents of children with ASDs generally identify concerns by the age of 12 to 18 months, but in the U.S., the average age of official diagnosis is around 4 years of age, with children in some socioeconomically disadvantaged groups diagnosed even later. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that all 18- and 24-month-olds be screened for ASDs. However, a big obstacle is that the scientific community still knows very little about early identification of and intervention for ASD in babies and toddlers.

The majority of the first ASD baby studies were "retrospective" – scientists asked parents of children already diagnosed to try to remember early signs of their children's autism. Most parents remembered things like delayed speech and language and disruptions in social communication that usually took place during the second year of life. But these studies still left a lot of questions in the air. Are there markers of differences in social communication earlier in life? How do we design studies to measure ASD in babies who can't talk? How do we know which babies to test?

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Tags: Health, In This Issue, Special Needs

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