New warning sign helps predict autism early
For parents with infants at risk for autism, researchers may have good news about detecting the disorder early.
A new study published in the Journal for Autism and Developmental Disorders is helping clinicians understand the relationship between joint attention, an early form of communication involving eye contact to share an experience developed during the first year, and predicting future autism diagnoses among high-risk babies.
The study confirmed what several other studies have already predicted: low levels of engagement, such as not smiling during personal interactions, may be linked to autism, especially among babies who have older siblings with the disorder.
“The ability to coordinate attention with another person without a smile, without an emotional component, seems to be particularly important for high-risk siblings in the development of ASD symptoms,” said study author Devon Gangi from the UM College of Arts and Sciences in a news release. “The detection of markers associated with autism early in life, before a child can be diagnosed with autism, is important to help identify children at the greatest need for early interventions.”
The findings showed high-risk babies were more likely to display autism symptoms by 30 months if they had lower levels of joint attention without smiling at eight months, meaning there were less personal interactions with an emotional component, according to the study.
But it’s important to note that all smiles are different. It was only those children who displayed a lower level of anticipatory smiles, transferring a smile from a toy to another person such as a parent or sibling, who had a higher risk for being diagnosed with autism, according to a news release.
“High-risk siblings seem to have particular difficulty in sharing their preexisting positive affect with another person, which is what happens during an anticipatory smile,” said principal investigator of the study Daniel Messinger in a statement. “This difficulty may be indicative of a broader deficit autism trait among most high-risk siblings.”
The research does offer parents good news as Dr. Karen Fried, director of Developmental Pediatric Services at Advocate Masonic Medical Center in Chicago, said intensive early intervention is known to make a difference, especially if begun before age three.
Dr. Fried recommends checking out the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers, Revised (M-CHAT-R), a validated screening tool for toddlers between 16- and 30-months of age. She said some “red flags” to look for in your toddler are:
- Lack of eye contact and social smiling
- Preference not to be held or cuddled
- Lack of babbling
- Lack of single words
- Unusual use of single words, e.g., can name things (“airplane”) but cannot request even simple things (“juice,” “cracker”)
- Not looking at objects when you point to them
- Not pointing at objects to show interest
- Not responding when spoken to, but responding to other sounds
“Trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right about your child’s development, don’t let someone tell you otherwise,” Dr. Fried said. “Educate yourself about early, accurate diagnosis and interventions that have evidence versus those that do not.”
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