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While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians screen for autism spectrum disorders (ASD) starting at 18 months of age, researchers have identified several potential signs in infants. Since evidence shows that early intervention can lessen the impact of ASD, experts recommend that parents be alert to the following red flags in their 4- to 6-month-olds: avoiding eye contact; no reaction to a parent’s voice or presence (no cooing, smiling or babbling); aversion to touch; and delayed motor development (e.g., not reaching for and grasping toys by 4 months of age; not rolling over by 5 months).
If you spot a warning sign, don’t panic—it’s far from a foregone conclusion that your baby has autism, says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. But if two or more of these red flags persist for two to three weeks, see your child’s pediatrician or an infant-development specialist, recommends Landa. Early behavioral therapies that encourage interaction can bring about noticeable improvements in a baby’s behavior. “There’s no age that’s too young to address the early red flags of autism,” she says.
Just the facts
■ Autism rates have soared to 1 in 150 children, up from 4 to 5 in every 10,000 kids in the late 1980s, according to a 2007 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe the increase is due in part to better diagnosis of the disorder.
■ Boys are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with autism.
■ While the mercury preservative thimerosal found in vaccines was once thought to be a culprit, large studies have discounted this theory.
■ Scientists have found no known causes for autism, but studies suggest that genes may play a role. There’s also a strong possibility that something in the environment triggers the disorder in children born with a susceptibility to it.