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The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends screening children for autism when they are 18 months of age or older. However, new research discussed by Patricia Manning-Courtney, MD, FAAP, at the AAP National Conference and Exhibition in Orlando shows that in some cases, earlier detection of autism may be possible. In Manning-Courtney’s presentation, “Early Screening and Diagnosis in Autism Spectrum Disorders: How Low Can we Go,” the doctor, who specializes in developmental and behavioral pediatrics, focuses on research on siblings of children with autism and how this can help detect very subtle behaviors, surfacing before age 18 months that may indicate autism. This is a huge deal, because detection age aside, what almost all researchers do agree on is that the sooner a child is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, the sooner that earlier critical behavioral and learning interventions can begin.

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Manning-Courtney notes that during the span of 12 to 18 months of age, one may be able to detect some extremely subtle, yet telling behaviors in a child who is autistic. Some of these behaviors may include:

  • Less eye contact and visual tracking behavior
  • More limited and repetitive play
  • Less name response than other children of the same age
  • Fewer social smiles given to others
  • Less frequent babbling and gesturing

Manning-Courntey also reminds parents and health care providers that most resources for screening and treating autistic children are already overburdened as it is, so jumping to specialist referral just because your child exhibits some of the behaviors above occasionally isn’t always wise. However, if a child is already at risk for autism due to perhaps having a sibling with the diagnosis, then it’s clear parents should be more aware and concerned if these behaviors appear and bring it up with their pediatrician.

+ American Academy of Pediatrics