Can Autism Be Detected Early?

Doctors are working on ways to discover and treat the disease as soon as infancy.

If autism is diagnosed in infancy, targeted interventions can improve language and social development. (Photo: o5com/Creative Commons via Flickr)

From the time their baby Lochlan was born, Paige and Iain knew their son was different. He didn’t make eye contact the way infants typically do, and by 15 months old, he wasn’t walking or talking. He couldn’t even say “Mama” or “Dada.” Then came the devastating diagnosis when Lochlan turned three: autism. Paige and Iain felt angry, scared, and uncertain about the future.

Though it’s common for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to remain undiagnosed and untreated until they are two to three years old, it may not be long before babies as young as 12 months old can be identified, making earlier intervention possible.

A study by Dr. Brooke Ingersoll of Michigan State University, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, explains that the medical community is currently studying ASDs earliest symptoms, as well as how best to stop the disorder’s progression.

For instance, even before they begin to speak, infants typically exhibit other social-communication skills like imitation, or paying attention to both an object and a person simultaneously. These abilities are thought to assist in the later emergence of more complex language and social skills.

Children with ASDs are less likely to exhibit these rudimentary communication behaviors. The hope is that targeted interventions can help babies acquire these abilities, improving subsequent language and social development.

Ingersoll told Education Week about one intervention called reciprocal imitation training. A therapist imitates what the child is doing, then encourages the child to imitate her back.

“We try to teach them, ‘Imitating other people is this great social thing,’ ” Ingersoll said. Parents are then taught to practice the technique at home.

Early results show promise, though it will be another few years before studies on this and other interventions are complete. Ingersoll remains optimistic. “I think there’s a lot of hope that if we can figure out the right behaviors early enough, and intervene early enough, we may be able to prevent the development of autism.”

THE PEDIATRICIAN EFFECT

Before children reach school age, pediatricians may be the only adults they see regularly who are trained in child development. These primary healthcare providers are in a unique position to help families recognize warning signs for developmental disorders.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed a new curriculum called Autism Case Training: A Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics Curriculum to help future doctors learn how to identify, diagnose, and treat ASDs in their patients.

The curriculum is an interactive learning tool composed of seven case-based studies that allow pediatricians to develop practical skills for communicating with patients and families.

The goal is for healthcare providers to recognize signs and symptoms as early as possible, and facilitate immediate intervention and treatment.

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