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Worried About Autism? No Need to Wait

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Development & Learning

The rising numbers of children identified as being on the autism spectrum has many parents concerned. What if their own child is affected by this disorder? What can be done if he is?

Autism is a brain difference that affects as many as 1 in 68 children. It is characterized by lack of interest in social connections and difficulty with making social connections. Since language is social, some children with autism do not learn language. Children with autism typically are more interested in “things” than in people.

Obviously, anything that causes a child to struggle to connect with other people causes problems for that child. Everything from following directions to making friends is affected by an autistic child’s lack of social abilities. It’s important to identify autism early so these essential social connections can be made while a child is still young.

Autism is actually many different disorders under one name, in the same way that “cancer” is an umbrella term for a whole host of different diseases with different causes and effects. Although no cause for any form of autism has been identified, it is quite definitely a difference in brain wiring. Because this is so, and because the brain in early childhood is especially open to rewiring, identifying autism early so brain-based therapy can be started is particularly important.

The problem has been that children with autism are not identified early. Although a screening tool, in the form of a parent questionnaire, has been available for children as young as two, most children with autism are not identified until age four, as they are entering kindergarten.  Pediatricians simply don’t have access to the questionnaire or the ability to interpret the results. This means that years of brain retooling have been lost by the time a child is diagnosed. All the early social development that should happen before a child starts school is missing in the freshly-diagnosed autistic kindergartener. He is behind his classmates, unable to cope with the classroom situation and may never catch up or fit in.

Now, however, a simple pair of biomarkers has been identified that even local pediatricians can use as a screening tool for autism as early as a child reaches just nine months of age. The screening process identifies children who may be at risk for autism and for language delay. The two biomarkers are larger-than-average head circumference for body size at age nine months and failure on a test of the head tilting reflex. In this reflex, the head position is adjusted automatically when the child’s body position is changed – or not, as is the case for children at risk for autism or for language delay.

Initial screenings of 1,000 infants found 49 infants without a previous diagnosis who displayed abnormal results on the two biomarkers. Of these 15 were identified as at-risk for autism and 34 at-risk for language delay. Of those identified as at-risk for autism, the diagnosis was confirmed with further testing at age three for 14 of the 15 children.

If you are worried about your baby, remember that early diagnosis of autism leads to early treatment, which is much more effective than treatment begun later. It’s important to take action and get answers.

Now, with these simple biomarkers, doctors everywhere are able to get parents the answers they need to ease their minds and help children.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.