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Autism researchers who specialize in early intervention have a new weapon in their arsenal: the ability to recognize clues to the syndrome in high-risk babies as young as 3 or 4 months. By initiating intensive therapy with infants and their parents, therapists hope to prevent a diagnosis of actual autism at 2 or 3 years.
"Brain development is most dynamic in the first year of life," says Hanna A. Alonim, director of Israel's The Mifne Center, which promotes early treatment of autism. "When you work with infants, you can start to see change not in days but in hours." She advises parents of 3- to 4-month-olds to be alert to these red flags:
• Excessive passivity or activity (including either lack of crying or incessant crying)
• Resistance to being nursed, fed or touched or to making direct eye contact (may gaze at objects)
• Lack of interest in surroundings or lack of reaction to people or voices (doesn't turn head, smile or babble)
• Delayed motor development (followed by hypotonic, or stiff, muscle tone)
Most normal infants demonstrate these behaviors occasionally, and new parents shouldn't worry unduly, says Henry Massie, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Berkeley, Calif., and a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco: "Other infants show such signs but outgrow them; only a small percentage go on to develop autism." Still, parents need to be aware of normal developmental milestones and, if concerned, see a pediatrician or child psychiatrist immediately. "Autism is still a great mystery, and treatment remains a wilderness," Massie says. "But with very early intervention, some children can be spared."