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September 2007
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Spotting Autism Spectrum Disorders
Early Detection Important for Outcome

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Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) begin in early childhood and last through a lifetime.  Most experts agree that early intervention can improve a child’s quality of life for years to come.  A recent study found that it’s possible to detect signs of autism in some children as young as 14 months old, the earliest the disorder has ever been identified.

ASD includes several related brain disorders, with symptoms spanning the spectrum from mild to severe.  People with ASD generally have trouble with social interactions and communication.  They may also have repetitive behaviors.  For example, a child might spend hours lining up toy cars.  Some children may be unusually sensitive to certain sounds or touch.

ASD is generally diagnosed by age 3, but researchers supported by NIH recently studied whether earlier diagnoses could be made.  The scientists focused on children considered to be at high risk for ASD because they had a sibling with the disorder.  At 14 months of age, about half of the children who went on to develop ASD had dramatically lower social and communication abilities.  The other half showed no signs at 14 months; however, by the time they were 2 years old, their social and communication skills had dropped sharply.

The study revealed two distinct patterns of how ASD symptoms appear during early childhood.  In some children, ASD can be distinguished at just over 1 year of age.  Other children don’t show definite signs until they’re closer to 2 years old.  More research will be needed to see if these patterns also hold true for the general population.

While some scientists are trying to better understand and diagnose ASD, others aim to get to the root causes.  The Autism Genome Project Consortium, supported in part by NIH, is searching for specific genetic variations that contribute to ASD.  As more genes involved with ASD are identified, studies of how they work in the brain will help to sort out the genetic and environmental influences on ASD.  These studies will hopefully lead to more effective treatments.

In the meantime, the possibility of earlier diagnosis is encouraging.  Behavioral therapies, specialized teaching and certain medications can all help people with ASD.  If you suspect your child is showing signs of ASD, contact your doctor as soon as possible. 

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Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children with a family history of autism have a somewhat higher risk for developing ASD than children with no family history. There may be cause for concern if a child:

  • Does not babble, point or make meaningful gestures by 1 year of age.
  • Does not speak one word by 16 months.
  • Does not combine two words by 2 years.
  • Does not respond to name.
  • Appears to be unaware when people are addressing him/her but responds to other sounds.
  • Avoids eye contact.
  • Does not smile.
  • Wants to be alone.
  • Does not seem to know how to play with toys.
  • Excessively lines up toys or other objects.
  • Does not point at objects to show interest.
  • Does not look at objects when another person points at them.
  • Has unusual reactions to the way things smell, taste, look, feel or sound.

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