Autism is a complex developmental disorder that affects a child's ability to communicate and interact with others. Most kids with autism are diagnosed after age four, but new research shows parents and doctors may be able to spot the disorder much sooner. And, when it comes to an autism diagnosis as with so many other things: the earlier, the better!
The numbers are alarming: one in every 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. While there’s a lot scientists don’t know about this common condition, there's one thing they do: diagnosing and treating it early does improve outcomes. That’s because from birth to age three, the human brain has the most neuroplasticity.
Christopher J. Smith, PhD, SARRC V.P. and Research Director says, "That means that their brain is the most flexible it’s ever going to be for learning and developing new skills."
It's at this time that therapies are most effective. Recent research has shown an autism diagnosis can be made as early as 14 months of age. Still, about half of young children who are referred for an autism diagnosis are put on a "watch-and-wait" list, which means their treatment will be delayed many times for years. Some early signs to watch out for in babies: not making eye contact, not responding to their name, repeating certain actions again and again, unusual emotional responses, and one more that parents often overlook.
“Their report about them when they were a baby is they were such a good baby. They could play alone for so long. Well, that’s not what a typically-developing baby should be doing,” continued Smith.
The best advice for parents: if there are any red flags, talk to your doctor about an evaluation and push for an early diagnosis. It could make a difference down the road.
Experts are divided on exactly when to start screening children for autism. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screening start at 18 months. But the U.S. preventive services task force says there’s insufficient evidence to recommend universal screening before age three. New research at Stanford suggests technology could alleviate the bottleneck in autism diagnosis around the world. Using artificial intelligence, they can analyze short home videos of children playing and interacting with others to distinguish autism from other developmental delays with 85 percent accuracy.