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Autism: Early Detection

Oftentimes, parents of children with autism report how they helplessly watched their children “slip away.” At some point the children stop making eye contact regularly or they stop being as responsive as they used to be. Sadly, physicians do not always detect the beginning signs or disregard the parents’ worries—prolonging the time before a treatment programs can be found and begun. (See: A Mom’s Journey to Diagnose and Treat Her Autistic Son) The earlier autism is detected, the better the chances are of a child improving with treatment—and in some cases, living a more normal life. That’s why researchers have identified behaviors to help parents and pediatricians diagnose children as young as four months. This is especially important since most children with autism aren’t diagnosed until age three, and then must wait up to two years, in some cities, to get into a treatment program. Geraldine Dawson, PhD, is the director of the University of Washington Autism Center and, is not only pioneering ground-breaking autism research, but she is also on the board of First Signs, Inc. a nonprofit championing early autism detection.

“We seek to discover early risk factors for autism, including behavioral, psycho-physiological, and neurobiological indices that can further distinguish toddlers with autism from children with developmental delay and those with typical development. Such research will enhance our ability to recognize autism early in life so that children with autism can be helped as early as possible, and their long-term outcome can be improved,” explains Dawson.

Dawson’s research in early detection is critical as experts stress that behavioral therapy can drastically improve autistic symptoms, but makes the biggest difference in children four years and younger. Autism is still such a mystery, but what has been learned, is that some children can remarkably improve their language and social skills with therapy. Sadly, after four years, if a child is not treated, the disorder may have progressed too strongly, making it much harder to reach a child. That’s not to say that therapy won’t help older children, it just requires much more time and patience. Understandably, the goal now is early detection. Since pediatricians are often stretched for time, and current autism assessment tests are for two-years-olds, pediatricians don’t always notice autism in the first year. Parents, therefore, need to be empowered, something Dawson and First Signs are trying to do.

Dawson outlined behavioral milestone lists beginning at four months, to help parents diagnose and better discuss concerns with their physicians before a child’s first birthday. (See: Autism Behavioral Checklist.)

“Until fairly recently, we hadn’t really defined the very early symptoms of autism. But in the last several years, research has identified the behaviors you can see in a child as young as twelve months,” Dawson says.

The main indicators of autism by twelve months include:

  • Failure to make eye contact
  • Failure to point
  • Failure to show things to others, such as bringing a toy to parents
  • Failure to orient when name is called
  • Failure to babble, such as “da da,” or “ma ma”


If you notice some of these symptoms in your child and your child’s pediatrician disregards your concerns, Dawson says it’s time for a second opinion. There is nothing to lose if your child is deemed not to have autism, and everything to gain if you get her into a treatment program early.

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