Parents thrill to the sight and sound of their baby’s first smiles and babbles, and these natural expressions of joy are important developmental milestones. For this reason, parents and physicians pay attention to these earliest social cues. When an infant fails to exhibit them within the first year of life, it can be among the earliest signs of an autism spectrum disorder.
“Autism can be diagnosed as early as 12 to 18 months of age, but most children are not diagnosed until 3 to 5 years old, depending on the severity of the symptoms, and the child and family's access to a care system that can identify the behavioral and developmental characteristics,” says Dr. John Mantovani, chairman of pediatrics at Mercy Hospital-St. Louis.
Babies who fail to make eye contact, do not like to be held or do not exhibit responsive facial expressions and sounds may be showing very early autism symptoms, and parents who are concerned should to talk to their pediatrician, adds Dr. Alan Skoultchi, a pediatrician with St. Louis Pediatric Associates Inc. at St. Luke’s Hospital. “By 9 months, most babies will respond to their name, and they typically begin babbling around 1 year old,” he says. “If we don’t see these typical behaviors developing, then we can refer the family to a specialist for a more in-depth assessment.” In general, Skoultchi refers families to pediatric neurologists for in-depth testing and diagnosis.
If a child is diagnosed with autism, there are a variety of services available to help, says Jeanne Marshall, VP for autism services with Easter Seals Midwest. “We often have the family meet with our family navigators right at the beginning to determine their needs and guide them to a plan of action,” she says. “This includes information on appropriate programs, school ideas, funding resources, the Missouri First Steps program and the Missouri Department of Mental Health program.”
Besides educational and developmental programs, children may need additional medical testing to search for an underlying cause, which can be identified in between 20 and 30 percent of cases, Mantovani says. “Research to optimize interventions is ongoing,” he adds. “Intensive intervention programs often use functional behavioral analytic approaches (applied behavioral analysis) and incorporate developmental therapies, such as language and occupational therapy.”
A final point experts make is that the purported connection between vaccines and autism has been debunked. Scientists and physicians now think autism is a complex syndrome caused by a combination of genetic abnormalities and environmental triggers. “A tremendous amount of research into possible causes and contributions is continuing,” Mantovani says.
Marshall agrees with medical professionals that parents should act on any early concerns: Talk to your pediatrician or call Easter Seals Midwest. “Sometimes it may turn out that it isn’t going to be a formal diagnosis; but in the event that it is, the quicker you start services, the better the outcome for the child and family.”