Yet one thing everyone agrees on is that the sooner a child's autism is diagnosed, the sooner that child can get the help he or she needs.
The nation's fastest-growing developmental disorder, autism affects an estimated one in every 110 children. With such a high incidence rate, many parents may agonize over any developmental delays, wondering if what they see is just the normal variances in children's development rates - or an indication of a more serious disorder.
Dr. Rebecca Landa, head of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, recommends concerned parents act early, rather than waiting to see if developmental delays resolve themselves. Early intervention can have a big impact on the development of children with autism.
"Our research suggests that the 'wait and see' method, which is often recommended to concerned parents, could lead to missed opportunities for early intervention," Dr. Landa says. "By identifying these early signs of autism and acting early, we are providing toddlers with tools and skills to increase social opportunities throughout their lifetime and positioning them to have the best possible outcomes."
Researchers at the Institute have recently made major advances that now allow the signs of autism to be detected in children as young as age 1. Parents concerned about their child's developmental delays should look for these early warning signs:
- Little or no attempt to attract attention - It's typical for infants and toddlers to seek the attention of those around them. Attention-seeking tactics can range from making silly facial expressions, moving their limbs and making babbling sounds in babies younger than 1, to talking and acting silly in children older than 12 months. Children who don't attempt to attract the attention of others in these ways could be at risk for autism.
- Poor eye contact - By the time they're 2 months old, infants can make direct eye contact with an adult. Children who later develop autism often avoid making eye contact and are more interested in staring at objects or other facial features such as the mouth.
- Poor or no response to own name - By 6 months, typical children will respond when an adult calls their name. Parents should be concerned if their child infrequently or inconsistently responds to his name.
- Delayed speech/babbling - Delayed babbling and then delayed spoken language is one of the most recognizable signs that a child's development is delayed. Children should be babbling as young as 6 months.
- Doesn't mimic facial expressions - As early as 2 months old, babies mimic the facial expressions of others, smiling when someone smiles at them. When a baby does not voluntarily reciprocate a parent's smile, it's a red flag for autism.
- Engages in unusual play - Unusual play is another red flag. For example, a child might spin, flick or line up toys and objects in a purposeless, repetitive way. This can become more noticeable as children reach 2 or 3 years old.
- Unusual body movements - Parents can often easily identify differences in how a child moves. Children with autism might repeatedly stiffen their arms or legs, flap their hands or arms, twist their wrists or move in other unusual ways.
- Repetitive language - Children with autism may engage in repetitive language. These children may be able to recite the ABCs before they can make word combinations.
- Does not express desire to share interests - At 9 to 12 months old, and in some cases earlier, children want to show or share their interests with others. They might point to something and wait for a parent to react, or hold up a toy to see and comment on it. A child with autism may not attempt to engage socially in this way.
- Disinterested in imitating others - Babies and toddlers love to imitate the actions of others; it's how they learn to laugh, eat and play. An early warning sign of autism is often a child's disinterest in imitating others. A child might occasionally mimic others, but more often observes rather than imitates.